Posted on September 4, 2014
First, fullerenes are molecules made of carbon that form hollow spheres, tubes, and ellipsoids (oval 3-D shapes, like squashed spheres).
They are called “fullerenes” in homage to architect Buckminster Fuller, who pointed out that triangles and hexagons are much stronger shapes to build with than are squares and rectangles. The geodesic dome was one of his inventions.
The word fullerene is, of course, an homage to Fuller's last name, but the first fullerene ever prepared – on this date in 1985 – was named buckminsterfullerene. (That's a mouthful!) Now scientists call any spherical fullerene a buckyball, and they call cylindrical fullerenes buckytubes (AKA carbon nanotubes or megatubes).
Stunningly, fullerenes have been found in nature and have even been detected in outer space! Here are some quotes from scientists:
“This most exciting breakthrough provides convincing evidence that the buckyball has, as I long suspected, existed since time immemorial in the dark recesses of our galaxy." – chemist Sir Harry Kroto, one of the scientists who first discovered fullerenes
“It’s possible that buckyballs from outer space provided seeds for life on Earth." – astronomer Letizia Stanghellini
So far fullerenes have been used mostly in the field of medicine. Scientists have used fullerenes to create high-performance agents that provide contrast in MRI and X-ray images (so that doctors can, for example, see the locations, sizes, and shapes of tumors). Fullerenes have been used to deliver drugs and genes to the right spot, and they have been used in photodynamic therapy, which is the use of non-toxic light-sensitive substances to attach to cancer cells or other diseased cells; when the substances are exposed to light, they kill the problem cells. Photodynamic therapy can also kill bacteria, fungi, and viruses. It's even used to combat acne!
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