Sept. 4 marked the 25th birthday of the Buckyball — aka the buckminsterfullerine — a date that ostensibly gave birth to the nanotech industry. A fullerine is a carbon molecule whose atoms have been highly structured into symmetrical spheres and tubes (such as nantubes).
Two Rice University scientists found a way to structure carbon atoms and their first creation (for which they won the Nobel prize) was a molecule shaped like a geodesic dome called C-60, hence the namesake of the molecule (Buckminster Fuller is the father of the geodesic dome).
The molecule was made from a lattice of 60 carbon atoms which were warped to form a perfect nanoscopic sphere with remarkable properties. The Buckyball and its sibling the carbon nanotube are incredibly lightweight and incredibly strong AND highly conductive.
One company, Nanocomp, is manufacturing body army that is the thickness of a business card but can stop bullets, and a nanowire lighter and more conductive than copper.
Though the field of nanotechnology is only 25 years old, the applications of fullerines and and other nanostructres are nearly limitless (great audio piece). Rice University researchers are now building nano-filters that can suck CO2 directly out of the air. One company called Oxane is making nano-balls that can be used in extracting natural gas, replacing the toxic fracking compounds currently used. Then there are companies like Porifera making tubes that can extract salt from water, greatly reducing the costs of desalination plants. There are also medical applications -- the ability to enginere nano-balls that attach to viruses like HIV making them incapable of reproducing.
So let's celebrate the birthday of the Buckyball, a noble little molecule which many say will lead to the next industrial revolution -- a revolution that, through dramatic, will only be visible through an electron microscope.