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Buckyballs-A Special Carbon Structure

Buckyballs or buckminsterfullerenes are practically synonymous with nanotechnology. Oddly though, this form of carbon has not found any practical uses. Related structures though, such as nanotubes and graphene sheets, are finding their way into new materials such as semiconductors, tennis rackets and aircraft.

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What are Buckyballs?

A buckyball is a chemical structure consisting only of carbon atoms. The most familiar, the C60 (60 carbons) is symmetrical and looks like a soccer ball. Buckyballs can have fewer than 60 carbons while others, with more, are elongated like a rubgy ball .

The buckyball structure was discovered relatively recently unlike the other, better known carbon allotropes (forms), diamond and graphite. This might lead one to believe that it is artificial or synthetic but it is naturally occurring.

Buckyball, Diamond, Graphite, Nanotube
5 forms of inorganic carbon. Top left: diamond; centre: nanotube; top right: graphite; bottom right: buckyball; bottom left: body centered tetragonal.

It can be produced by simply burning wood or candles but is also found in red giant stars as a natural part of stellar evolution. The infographic below provides a bit more information.

C60 Buckyball
The structure of buckyballs was described nearly 30 years ago by Prof. Harry Kroto & resulted in his winning a Nobel Prize. Infographic courtesy of Andy Brunning of Compound Interest.

Buckyball Related Structures

The basic structure of the buckyball, connected hexagonal but without pentagonal rings has found use in nanotubes and graphene sheets. A nanotube is simply a highly elongated buckyball with thousands of carbons. These structures have extremely high tensile strength and when laid down in sheets have a very high strength to weight ratio.

When flattened into sheets the structure is called graphene. This form has very high electrical conductivity giving potential rise to very fast computing devices.

Graphene Sheets
Graphene is a flattened buckyball or single layer of graphite.

Carbon, Water and Life

Discovery of water on other worlds in our solar system and elsewhere inevitably evoke the notion of possible life. This is really only half the equation. Carbon is unique among the elements in its ability to form long chains. The most familiar are plastics and the most important, DNA. Without this ability, it is hard to imagine how life, even rudimentary, could evolve. While silicon can form some extended structures, these do not incorporate all the elements – nitrogen, oxygen, sulfur and hydrogen that appear essential to living things.

Buckyballs-another natrually occurring form of carbon along with diamond & graphite
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Buckyballs-another natrually occurring form of carbon along with diamond & graphite
The ability of carbon to form chains & complexes such as polymers & lattices make it unique among the elements. Without it, all the water in the universe would not produce life as we know it.
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