Twelve Candles for 60 Carbons

The buckyball, a 60-carbon molecule shaped like a soccer ball, made its debut 12 years ago today in the pages of Nature. The discovery came while British chemist Harold Kroto was visiting the Rice University lab of American chemist Richard Smalley; they were trying to create new forms of carbon that might exist in interstellar space by bombarding graphite with a laser beam. When the researchers analyzed the resulting products with mass spectroscopy, they detected an unusually stable molecule with exactly 60 carbons; later, they worked out its spherical shape. Kroto named the molecule a "buckminsterfullerene" from its resemblance to the geodesic dome designed by architect Buckminster Fuller. Chemists are still excitedly studying this remarkably strong and beautiful molecule, along with related carbon structures, such as buckytubes, which may prove useful as tiny chemical reaction chambers or electronic components.

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