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Molecular carbon: playing 'buckyball'.

Sports fans may recognize the proposed structure for a newly discovered 60-atom carbon molecule as the geometric pattern on a soccer ball. But images of R. Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes inspired its name: buckminsterfullerene. Formed in the laboratory by the violent, laser-driven vaporization of graphite, such as highly symmetric, stable carbon clusters may pervade the universe, especially around carbon-rich stars and within interstellar dust. These molecular "buckyballs" may also sit at the core of soot particles.

The molecule, C.sub.60., as reported in the Nov. 14 NATURE, was discovered at Rice University in Houston during experiments aimed at studying how lengthy carbon chains are formed in interstellar space. To their surprise, the researchers found that under certain conditions 60-atom clusters show up in mass spectra much more often than do fragments of other sizes. "We figures there was something very magic about 60," says chemist Richard E. Smalley. "Why would 60, but not 58 or 62, be so stable?"

Normally, carbon atoms sit at the corners of tetrahedra in a diamond lattice or at the vertices of hexagons in chicken-wire sheets of graphite. Yet no graphite or diamond structures account for the remarkable stability of C.sub.60 in particular and clearly exclude the other possibilities, says Smalley. The structure that seems to fit best is a truncated icosahedron, made up of 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons and showing 60 vertices.

"It's not any old answer," says Smalley. "It's the largest number of objects that you can arrange on the surface of a sphere such that each one i identical." Each carbon atom has one double bond and two single bonds linking it with three other carbon atoms.

"The big mystery is how the system can rearrange itself like this," says Robert F. Curl, a member of the Rice team. "We're not really quite clear about what's happening in the vaporization process. Even if it comes off in graphite sheets, it somehow has to pull in a five-member ring in order to start curving around."
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Title Annotation:proposed structure for newly discovered carbon molecule
Author:Peterson, Ivars
Publication:Science News
Date:Nov 23, 1985
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