Buckyballs are carbon molecules arranged in a spheroid with geometric patterns that are quite often likened to a soccer ball. They are called as such as a nod to Buckminster Fuller, the architect that so often is associated with geodesic domes.
Buckyballs, also known as fullerenes, were first predicted by Eiji Osawa, a professor of computational chemistry, at Toyahashi University of Technology in Japan in 1970, but they weren’t proven to exist until 1985 by the team of Harold Kroto, James Heath, Sean O’Brian, Robert Curly and Richard Smalley, which won three of them the Nobel prize in Chemistry in 1996.
Buckyballs come in all sizes, which means the number of carbon atoms that comprise the molecule can vary in number. Some of them are so large that other atoms can get trapped inside of them.
One of the important things to note about buckyballs is that though they can now be created in the lab, they also occur in nature; they were first discovered in candle ash after all. One of the simplest ways that buckyballs can be created is by putting a block of graphite between two electrodes and then sending a charge through the block. The plasma arc separates some of the graphic off into ash, which contains among other things, buckyballs.
Currently, buckyballs are the roundest and most symmetrical of known molecules, and it is their hollowness and strength that intrigues scientists, because there exists the possibility of putting things inside of them that will stay inside of them undisturbed, until a known procedure is performed to release their payload. Possibilities include applications in medicine such as a group of buckyballs filled with a cancer killing chemical delivered directly to the cancer cells, and only then releasing their payload. This would of course reduce the need for treatments with more detrimental side effects.
Buckyballs are also quite resistant to damage from high speed collisions, and have been shown to hold their shape even when slammed into stainless steel at 15,000 miles per hour. This brings forth the possibility of their being used in space applications where sensitive electronics need protection from space debris; and also in more Earth bound areas such as in automobile protection or weapons that could make our current bunker busters look primitive.
The bottom line on buckyballs at this time though is that research is still in its infancy, and thus no real applications are currently in existence. It’s the possibilities that many see for the future that causes so many scientists to get so excited about them.