BOSTON -- Chemists are not usually the type to work themselves into a lather. But last week, they filled the American Ballroom of the Westin Hotel here until they reached a critical mass of cheap suits and beeping watches.
There were guys from industry looking for angles. There were guys from government looking for projects to fund. But mostly, there were scientists with bulging briefcases who had come to the marathon session to hear news of something completely new: the buckyball.
A buckyball is a microscopic sphere of pure carbon, in a form and shape never before seen on Earth. Until a lanky physicist from Arizona and his German collaborator stumbled upon the recipe for making buckyballs a few months ago, there were only two known forms of pure carbon in the world: graphite, which comes in layers like chicken wire, and diamonds, which are tetrahedrons. But then came buckyballs.
"We looked through our microscopes and saw these beautiful little crystals. Something never before seen by man. It seemed staggering to us. A new form of pure carbon! We were just astounded," said Donald Huffman, who with his colleague and friend, astronomer Wolfgang Kratschmer of Heidelberg's Max Planck Institute, was the first to synthesize a large batch of buckyballs.
So new is the research that nobody knows yet what, if anything, a buckyball is good for. At the first scientific forum on the new type of carbon, held last Thursday during the annual meeting of the Materials Research Society here, scientists speculated that buckyballs could usher in a new age of organic compounds for use in industry and medicine. Evidence was presented that the balls could be semiconductors with potential use in microelectronics. They could find their way into rechargeable batteries. They might make good lubricants or new catalysts in chemical reactions.
"What good are they? Who knows!" Huffman said. "But they are so unique, I'd bet they're going to be good for something." 'I Think Round Carbon Is In'
One thing everyone agreed on. Carbon is plentiful. Carbon is cheap. And with the new technique devised by Huffman and colleagues, buckyballs can be made in a high school chemistry class with a welder, a couple of rods of graphite and a beer keg to serve as a vacuum chamber.
There are two reasons why buckyballs are so exciting to scientists. The first is academic. Carbon is the ubiquitous element of life. It is at the heart of organic chemistry. The planet Earth is literally crawling with carbon-based life forms, including humans. So how in the world have buckyballs eluded science for so long?
"To find a new form of any element is exciting," said Robert Whetten of the University of California at Los Angeles, who is now researching buckyballs. "To find a new form of carbon is almost unbelievable."
Yet, the real reason researchers are so captivated by buckyballs is their unique shape. "They're beautiful," Whetten said.
By beautiful, Whetten means that buckyballs are a near-perfect sphere. Indeed, they represent the highest possible symmetry allowed in Euclidian geometery. Buckyballs resemble the geodesic domes promoted by their namesake, the late architect Buckminster Fuller. They contain 60 carbon atoms, which arrange themselves in a pattern mimicked by a soccer ball, with 32 faces or panels, composed of 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons.
This elegant shape is stable, so other atoms can be attached to the outside of the buckyball or placed within the cage that forms the molecule.
"I think round carbon is in," said Harold Kroto of the University of Sussex in Brighton, a leading researcher into the buckyball phenomenon.
Whetten said buckyballs are the most exciting thing to hit chemistry since high-temperature superconductors. Kroto, perhaps gripped by the mood of elation at the conference in Boston, compared the discovery of buckyballs to Columbus's voyage of discovery to the New World.
Indeed, like the voyage of Columbus, the discovery of buckyballs involved a combination of brilliance and luck. Huffman and Kratschmer weren't even looking for buckyballs. They were looking for interstellar dust. Recipes for Space Dust
Astronomers have long tried to figure out what the dust between stars is made of. So, since the late 1960s, Huffman and colleagues have been trying to make all sorts of little clusters of carbon atoms in the laboratory, hoping to hit upon one that gives the same signal as interstellar dust when it is analyzed in a machine called a spectrometer. In the process, they accidentally hit upon buckyballs. There is no evidence -- at least, so far -- that buckyballs are the mystery ingredient in interstellar dust, but finding a new form of carbon was a major discovery, anyway.
Buckyballs had been glimpsed before. Scientists at Rice University and elsewhere saw evidence that a big carbon molecule containing 60 atoms existed. Although they were uncertain, they proposed that the molecule had the shape of a buckyball. Yet, they could not produce enough of the new form of carbon to study it in any detail.
Huffman and Kratschmer succeeded with a simple recipe. They take a rod of graphite, stick in a vacuum chamber and run a current through it. The graphite vaporizes, producing a soot that settles inside the chamber. The soot is collected, run through a benzene bath and allowed to dry. Voila! Buckyballs.
If the meeting in Boston is any indication, there is tremendous interest in buckyballs. The chemistry departments at UCLA and Rice, for example, are gripped with buckyball fever. Even after seven hours of talk by 22 speakers, the scientists at the Boston meeting were still staring at slide after slide of new buckyball properties. Propelled through the marathon session by keg beer, diet Cokes and cold hotdogs, the dazed researchers finally stumbled out into the night at 1 a.m.
Earlier in the evening, Huffman had told his colleagues there were three morals to this story. First, he said, big bucks are not a prerequisite to good science. Second, it is important to have fun. And best of all, not everything in the universe has been discovered.