Inventive materials: buckyballs

Inspiration for invention can come from anywhere

In 1996, Sir Harry Kroto, Rick Smalley and Robert Curl won a Nobel Prize for synthesising a new form of carbon, C60. They named it buckminsterfullerene in honour of Buckminster Fuller, the architect who pioneered the geodesic dome (as seen at the Eden Project in Cornwall). C60 molecules have since become known as ‘buckyballs’.

In architecture, geodesic domes are known for their strength and lightness. The same is true of buckyballs. When fired at a stainless steel plate at 15,000 mph, they just bounce off it. And when compressed to 70 per cent of their original size, they become twice as hard as diamond. Their chemistry can also be manipulated. A version in which all of the carbon atoms are combined with hydrogen (a ‘fuzzyball’) is more slippery than Teflon – just right for coating bowling balls.

Lead image:

Chris Guise/Flickr CC BY NC

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Nanoscience’ in June 2005 and reviewed and updated in August 2014.

History, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development