of researchers around the world eager to get their hands on a precious gram or two. In 1992 the 10 most frequently cited papers in chemistry, according to Science Watch, were all on buckyball-related studies aimed at uncovering the molecule's secrets and potential commercial applications.
A buckyball molecule contains 60 carbon atoms, chemically designated as C60, that bond into 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons with the same arrangement as the faces of a soccer-ball (see Figures 9.1 and 9.2). Its shape also follows the same geometric principles that underlie the geodesic dome invented by American architect R. Buckminster Fuller, after whom it was named. Actually, buckminsterfullerene (a.k.a. buckyball) is only one—although the roundest, most abundant, and most popular—of a whole family of similar molecules generally referred to as "fullerenes." The second most common fullerene is C70, whose 70 carbon atoms bond into what some say looks like a rugby ball (see Figure 9.1). "There are a lot of cousins in the carbon family that all share the same molecular form," said University of California, Los Angeles, chemist Robert L. Whetten. He and his colleagues at UCLA and UC-Santa Barbara have unlocked a number of fullerene secrets. They detected molecules with 76, 84, 90, and 94 carbon atoms, and other scientists have shown that giant versions with hundreds of carbon atoms exist.
Buckyballs and the other fullerenes constitute a third form of pure crystalline carbon, something entirely different from diamond and graphite, which were the only two crystalline forms of pure carbon thought to exist until scientists literally stumbled onto the fullerenes. The excitement they are generating is fueled not only by their aesthetic quality but also by their remarkable philosophical and commercial appeal.
For some researchers it has been a humbling experience to discover that modern science did not know everything about the very element that is critical for all earthly life. Apparently, nature has been making fullerenes all along wherever combustion is taking place. In fact, some scientists think they may be one of the most abundant molecules in the universe and that space may even be sprinkled with fullerenes, churned out by certain carbon-rich stars. There is even speculation that the incredibly stable buckyballs may have played a role in the development of organic life on earth.
On the practical end, the fullerenes are supremely tinkerable; being