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No. 563:
Bucky Balls

Today, we make an utterly new material. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Diamond and graphite are the two old familiar forms of carbon -- the empyrean and the earthly forms -- the sacred and the profane. It makes a nice dichotomy. But now we've thrown our neat classification out of balance. Now we have a new form of carbon entirely, and it is touching our imaginations.

This form of carbon is made of 60 atoms. Chemists had thought there should be some way to make big carbon molecules, but they'd never managed to do it. Then, in 1985, a group at Rice University heated carbon vapor to 15,000 degrees. They actually produced tiny amounts of carbon-60.

But the stuff was weird. It didn't form chains. It formed balls. Richard Smalley couldn't figure out the structure. He went home and tried to make a molecule out of paper. Nothing worked. How can you make a ball from 60 carbon atoms?

They finally tripped to the answer -- as we so often do -- by looking in the wrong place. Someone in the group remembered a book by Buckminster Fuller. Someone remembered Fuller's geodesic domes.

Fuller approximated a sphere the most efficient way you can -- as long as you use plane surfaces. He made his domes from alternating hexagons and pentagons. He wasn't first to do that. You make soccer balls the same way, with white hexagons and black pentagons.

So they called their new molecule Buckminsterfullerene. That's a mouthful. Most people just call those remarkable molecules Bucky Balls.

And they've electrified the scientific world. This strange new stuff hasn't found its place in our life yet. But it dangles such bait before us. Combine it with potassium, and you have a new superconductor. Combine it with other elements, and we'll surely create still better superconductors.

Suddenly everyone is looking for new applications. Meanwhile, Bucky Balls are hard to make. It's all too easy to burn them up while you're making them. They cost about $500 a gram as I write. They may well cost a lot less when you hear this episode.

This new substance has a Platonic perfection of form that's irresistable to theoreticians. It suggests a huge potential for human use. But more than anything else, it carries the excitement of possibility.

Smalley allows that that's the real payoff for a scientist. It is that magic moment when a huge abyss of newness opens out of one ordinary moment in a laboratory.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)

Richard Smalley tells his own story of the discovery of carbon 60 in

Smalley, R.E., Great Balls of Carbon: The Story of Buckminsterfullerene. The Sciences, March/April 1991, pp. 22-28.

The literature -- both popular and technical -- on Buckminsterfullerene is exploding. Any bibliography I might include here will be inadequate. Furthermore, what we know today, June 10th, 1991, will be out of date very soon.

Everything above was written in 1991. Since then, the discovery of Buckminsterfullerene has won the Nobel Prize in chemistry, and Bucky Balls have been named "The State Molecule of Texas"!