fullerenes image

Higher and foundation tiers

The fullerenes

The Eden Project domes Buckminster Fuller was an American architect, author and inventor. He was widely known for promoting geodesic dome like structures similar to the domes at The Eden Project in Cornwall. These domes are constructed from interlocking hexagon and a few pentagons.

In the 1985 scientists discovered a new allotrope of carbon. One in which the carbon atoms are arranged in "football" like structure or structures consisting of hollow cages or spheres and tubes. These spheres and tubes are called Fullerenes after Buckminster Fuller. Fullerene molecules are often shaped like hollow spheres or footballs, or long thin tubes or even ellipsoid (squashed or flattened spheres). The sizes of these spheres and tubes vary considerably.


The first fullerene discovered consisted of 60 carbon atoms, C60, covalently bonded together into a football type structure composed of hexagons and pentagons. It was named buckminsterfullerene after the American architect Buckminster Fuller. These ball like structures are often referred to as buckyballs. These buckyballs belong to a family called the fullerenes. These fullerene molecules as mentioned above consist of hollow football spheres or tubes of carbon atoms, sometimes the spheres are distorted into capsule like structures. The image below shows the typical structure of a buckyball or fullerene molecule.

Fullerene Bucky ball

Uses of Fullerenes

Carbon nanotubes

Imagine taking a layer of graphene and folding it to form a hollow cylinder, well carbon nanotubes are open cylinders of carbon atoms arranged in hexagons. These nanotubes have diameters measured in nanometres; they are 10 000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. They have incredible tensile strength, many times that of steel and they are good electrical conductors. Each carbon atom within the carbon nanotubes only forms three covalent bonds leaving one free delocalised electron, much like that found in another allotrope of carbon, namely graphite. These uses nanotubes have many new and exciting possible uses including for example: uses as artificial muscle fibres in surgery and drug delivery devices in medicine and dentistry as well as uses in many composite materials.

carbon nanotubes and bucky balls

Uses of Fullerenes

fullerene molecules carrying drugs inside the human body to kill cancer cells Buckminsterfullerene, C60 was the first buckyball to be discovered in 1985. However many more of these football like cage structured molecules have since been discovered, including C70, C72,C76C78 and many more including a C100 molecule and a small cage consisting of only 20 carbon atoms, C20. One of the main areas of application is in the field of medicine. There is promise that the cage structure of buckyballs could be used to deliver drug molecules directly to cancer cells and help reduce the toxic effects of these chemotherapy drugs on healthy body cells.

Other medical uses include the use of buckyballs as anti-viral and anti-inflammatory agents inside the human body. There is some evidence that buckyballs and variants of them can act as anti-viral and anti-inflammatory agents, for example there is on-going research into the use of buckyballs in the fight against the HIV virus, which produces AIDS in humans and in the treatment of multiple sclerosis where the use of buckyballs appear to act as anti-inflammatory and antioxidant agents in the body.

Other possible uses of buckyballs and other fullerenes include their use in solar cells, polymers and as lubricants.

Practice questions

Check your understanding - Questions on fullerenes

Check your understanding - Quick Quiz on the fullerenes.