Carbon is the ubiquitous chemical element of life and one of the most abundant elements in the universe.

On Earth, however, carbon exists in the pure form only as graphite

and diamond, found, among other places, in pencil lead and engagement rings.

Now researchers have produced a new form of pure, solid carbon: a jumbo molecule shaped like a soccer ball and composed of 60 carbon atoms arranged in a 20-sided, closed-cage sphere. Scientists call their laboratory creation "fullerite," named after the architect Buckminster Fuller, who used a similar pattern of adjoining polygons in his geodesic domes. Some chemists, who hypothesized the existence of the big solid carbon molecule, call them "Buckyballs."

The molecule was synthesized by Donald Huffman of the University of Arizona and Wolfgang Kratschmer of the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg and reported in the Sept. 27 issue of the journal Nature.

To make fullerite, Huffman and his team first vaporized pure graphite rods in a helium-filled chamber. The resulting soot is about 3 percent pure carbon-60.

Fullerite may occur naturally in the dust of stars. On Earth, Buckyballs may soon be used as a new generation of lubricants. Patents, as they say, are pending.