Boron buckyballs are coming

I'm sure you know that buckyballs are molecules composed entirely of carbon and got their name for famed architect Buckminster Fuller because of their shapes. Now, Rice University scientists have designed -- on computers -- a buckyball made of 80 boron atoms. The shape of this very stable molecule is very similar to the original fullerene made of 60 carbon atoms placed on the corners of hexagons. But in order to get a stable structure, they've added another boron atom in the center of each hexagon. What will be the use for these boron buckyballs? Even the researchers don't know yet.

I'm sure you know that buckyballs are molecules composed entirely of carbon and got their name for famed architect Buckminster Fuller because of their shapes. Now, Rice University scientists have designed -- on computers -- a buckyball made of 80 boron atoms. The shape of this very stable molecule is very similar to the original fullerene made of 60 carbon atoms placed on the corners of hexagons. But in order to get a stable structure, they've added another boron atom in the center of each hexagon. What will be the use for these boron buckyballs? Even the researchers don't know yet.

The boron buckyballThis research work has been led by Boris Yakobson, professor of mechanical engineering and materials science and his graduate students Nevill Gonzalez Szwacki and Arta Sadrzadeh. On the left is a picture of Boris Yakobson (right) and graduate student Arta Sadrzadeh (left) showing their B80 "buckyball" consisting entirely of boron atoms (Credit: Jeff Fitlow, Rice University, on this page).

Since the first fullerenes were discovered in 1985, lots of scientists have worked with them (check the Wikipedia article to get an idea). So why these Rice University researchers decided to try to build boron buckyballs? Simply because of proximity in the atomic table: boron is only one atomic unit from carbon. They started with 60 atoms, like the original fullerene, but it didn't look like a stable structure. This is the reason why they've added another boron atom into the center of each hexagon.

But will these new molecules be useful? "It’s too early to make comparisons," said Yakobson . "All we know is that it’s a very logical, very stable structure likely to exist. But this opens up a whole new direction, a whole new continent to explore. There should be a strong effort to find it experimentally. That may not be an easy path, but we gave them a good road map."

This research work has been published by Physical Review Letters under the name "B80 Fullerene: An Ab Initio Prediction of Geometry, Stability, and Electronic Structure" (Volume 98, Article 166804, April 20, 2007). Here is a link to the abstract. And the researchers will present this work at the 211th Electrochemical Society Meeting which will be held in Chicago, Illinois (May 6-10, 2007). Here is a link to the abstract about the boron buckyball.

But will these researchers receive the Nobel Prize in chemistry like the original discoverers of the original carbon buckyball? Time will tell.

Sources: Rice University, April 23, 2007; and various websites

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