Buckminsterfullerene

When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.

–R. Buckminster Fuller

Start with the Universe was Fuller’s idea of bigness. There is nothing bigger than the Whole-to-Part process of going from the whole to the particular reversing the traditional part-to-whole process of additive sums to equal the entire whole. Fuller thought in big spheres and geometric patterns, some might say networks, but not in geometric solids like ancient Greek geometers. He was about pattern integrities, not building block solidarities. 

This article is based on two of the primary publications that tell the story of one of the greatest discoveries in chemistry in the 20th century, Baggot’s Perfect Symmetry: The Accidental Discovery of Buckminsterfullerene and Aldersey-Williams’ The Most Beautiful Molecule: The Discovery of the Buckyball. 

So, let’s start with the question: What is a fullerene? The simple answer is the accidental discovery of Carbon 60, the 3rd form (allotrope) of carbon and a discovery that no one had thought existed to be discovered. Carbon had two forms: graphite (soft) and diamond (hard), period. Briefly, graphite contains layers of carbon atoms, which are used in pencil leads because layers easily slide onto the paper, leaving a black mark. Diamond, on the other hand, is extremely hard and has a high melting point, which is why it is very useful in cutting tools. That’s it! There are only two forms of carbon. That was the story that pretty much everyone stuck to for a long time.

OK, so now we know there was another form that no one thought existed but it wasn’t discovered by Fuller. The 3rd form was actually the discovery of Carbon 60, a symmetrically perfect sphere by Rice University and University of Sussex researchers, Richard Smalley, Robert Curl and Harry Kroto in 1985. Fuller died in 1983. So how come Fuller’s name is connected to the discovery and not one or all of the actual discoverers?

Now, we are into a slightly longer story. The Carbon60 discovery contained double chemical bonds. The naming convention for double bond discoveries required the name to end in ‘ene’. The convention was also against using names of discoverers. In the discovery of its spherical structure and its soccer ball shape, several name options were “batted” around: ballene, spherene, soccerene, even footballene. Anyone familiar with an ordinary soccer ball will know, or when they think about it, that its shape is a mix of pentagons and hexagons. How many of each is likely not finger-tip knowledge.

How the name buckminsterfullerene came about

In the history of mathematics, you can go as far back as the 18th century (1700s) to learn that Leonard Euler knew that pentagons were required in the structure of any spherical shape. Sadly, his mathematic discoveries never escaped Euclid’s “father of geometry” dominance going back to the 4thC BC. Euler was mostly forgotten by the 20th C.

Fast forward to van’t Hoff in the 19thC, a Dutch chemist and recipient of the first Nobel prize in chemistry, to see the introduction of 3-dimensional geometric modeling and his use of small cardboard molecular models (tetrahedrons) in chemistry. He used the models in persuading other scientists of the usefulness of his stereochemistry theory.

In the period leading up to the 2-volume publication of Synergetics: Geometry of Thinking in the 1970s (‘75 and ’79) Fuller revived the importance of Euler’s geometry in mathematics and van’t Hoff’s modeling in chemistry. His own work on geodesic structures had advanced from the Black Mountain experiments to the Ford Motor Company’s domed atrium, lightweight DEW line fly-in structures and his crowning achievement, the U.S. geodesic pavilion at Expo 67. In hindsight, 1967 was a pivotal year in what was to happen 18 years later. Both Kroto and Smalley visited Montreal that year. Both were impressed with the geometric structure nature of many of the national pavilions, especially the geodesic design of the U.S. pavilion. Neither had met or knew anything about each other’s work. 

The coming together of Smalley, Kroto and Curl, and 2 key student participants (Heath and O’Brien), happened at Rice University in 1984-85. Kroto was the first to recognize that the structure they were trying to build might look something like the Fuller’s Expo 67 dome. He had a clear picture of the hexagon nature of the dome but was less clear about the involvement of pentagons although he did mention them. At the height of their work in Houston, their efforts at building a closed structure model with hexagons kept failing. Everyone was frustrated with the lack of progress. Even Heath and his wife tried working with toothpicks and Gummy Bears. Nothing they tried could make hexagonal patterns curl. It kept stretching out like a roll of chicken wire. They became convinced that a closed structure could not be made out of hexagons. In the end, the supply of Gummy Bears ran out in favor of eating them over experimenting with them. Late at night (after midnight) of their last weekend of working together in September 1985, Smalley sat up a good portion of that night trying to remember what Kroto had been saying about the dome. It finally struck home that the dome was a mix of pentagonal and hexagonal faces. He went back to model building, not unlike van’t Hoff making cardboard models of tetrahedrons. By taping hexagons to the five sides of a pentagon, he began to see a natural curving upwards. He kept repeating the pattern until he had the shape of a perfect sphere: 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons. This, in his mind, had to be the structure of C60. What he didn’t know for sure was the perfectly symmetrical all-carbon structure he had his hand represented was “a model of a totally new concept in molecular structure”. However, in that moment he wasn’t sure he could explain what he had. He phoned and left a message with his colleague, the chair of Rice’s math department. When the chair called back, he said there were a number of ways to explain the structure … “but what you have got there boys is a soccer ball.” Kroto was ecstatic declaring it a beautiful structure. Fuller would no doubt have agreed. It was “the most beautiful molecule”. Nothing about it was wrong. Kroto also felt vindicated that some of his earlier references to the Expo dome were not way off. Curl was also ecstatic but his pragmatic nature wanted his own proof. He and Kroto set out to test it from the double bond angle. It passed the test. Curl was convinced.

Once all were convinced, the naming question was on the table. Kroto is said to have been the strongest advocate in the beginning for the double bond “ene” to be named in honor Fuller’s architectural vision and the 18 year-old breakthrough picture Kroto had from his visit to Expo 67 and his own fascination with geometric structures, especially the stardome he had talked about. In the end, the they not only agreed that it was a fullerene but agreed that C60 was the “archetypal fullerene” and deserved the name buckminsterfullerene. Today, the name in the spirit of Bucky’s multisyllable words has been truncated to “buckyball” and everyone’s easy ability to visualize the common soccer ball with its 20, white leather, hexagons and 12 black pentagons. In looking back some time later, Smalley concluded that “the buckyball was (and is) a sort of Rosetta Stone of what we now realize is an infinity of new structures made of carbon one way or another. . . and the deciphering of the C60 Rosetta Stone has led us to start dreaming of all sorts of new structures that truly are geodesic architecture on a nanometer scale, and to scheme about how to make them.”

Impact of Buckminsterfullerene into the 21st Century

The Bucky Ball fullerene has properties beneficial to numerous industries. Many applications have been proposed because of its tensile strength and ductility, maintaining their original shape after 3000 atmospheric pressure. The most extensive has been in the biomedical field, especially potential antiviral agents, suppression of the HIV virus, hepatitis C virus and the stomatitis virus. Buckyballs and buckytubes are being heavily researched for their drug and gene delivery capabilities. They have been found to be highly useful for the development of protective eyewear and optical sensors. Material research predicts that “buckyballs and other fullerenes will be the future of developing lightweight metals while achieving greater tensile strength.” The bi

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