When I was in Grade 12, I wrote an essay for a contest at the University of Western Ontario. The purpose of the essay was to talk about what you think the greatest contribution chemistry will make to society in the next decade. I wrote about buckyballs (also known as buckminsterfullerene) and their potential applications. Well, it’s been a decade since then, and I was completely wrong. But buckminsterfullerene is still a really interesting molecule.
It’s basically a tiny cage made out of 60 carbon atoms. The arrangement of atoms makes its structure look like a soccer ball, but the actual molecules are really more like round raspberries (see picture at right).
The interesting things about these molecules are:
- They can hold onto hydrogen molecules, which means we could potentially use them to store hydrogen at room temperature and pressure (as opposed to holding it in high-pressure gas cylinders)
- They also cause problems for the HIV virus: buckminsterfullerene prevents one of the enzymes in the HIV virus from functioning properly
- Scientists have studied the properties of these molecules when they’re put with other atoms (like potassium) and some of them become superconducting (zero resistance to electricity) at low temperatures.
Since the discovery of buckminsterfullerene, scientists have also studied other shapes made by carbon atoms, including ellipsoids (close to egg-shaped) and tube (like carbon nanotubes).
It’s an exciting time to be studying carbon right now, and buckminsterfullerene (and other carbon-based shapes) are sure to give us more surprises as we study them. It may not have been the greatest contribution of chemistry this past decade, but they’re pretty awesome. Definitely a chemical friend.
All image credits here go to Wikimedia Commons