In the centuries prior to the late 20th Century, it was believed that the element carbon only existed in two different forms: soft, conductive graphite and hard, transparent, insulating diamond.
In the 1970’s, a group from the University of Sussex developed methods for synthesizing long compounds composed of triple bonded carbon atoms. They created linear cyanopolyynes (polyynylcyanides) referred to as HC5N, HC7N and HC9N. These molecules are of interest because they are also produced by red giant stars and have been identified by radio astronomy in cloud material of interstellar medium.
In the 1980’s, Richard Smalley and Robert Curl at Rice University in Texas developed a technique using laser vaporization of suitable targets to create clusters of atoms. Harry Kroto of the University of Sussex realized that if the target material were graphite they could probe the formation of carbon chains. A collaboration was formed between the group at the University of Sussex and the group at Rice University.
The Sussex-Rice experiments took place in September of 1985. The results confirmed that large carbon chains did form. Additionally, they observed that Carbon60 (C60) molecules were created under all conditions and exhibited notable stability.
Eventually, they realized that the formation of the sixty carbon atoms resembled the geodesic structure designed by Architect Buckminster Fuller for Expo 67 in Montreal. Thus, they named the closed hemispherical shape containing linked pentagons and hexagons as Buckminsterfullerene or Bucky Balls for short.
Professors Curl, Kroto and Smalley received the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for their discovery.
All fullerenes from C20to C100 are closed structures. Every carbon atom within the fullerene is bonded to three others forming rings that make up the closed cage. C60 for various reasons is the most stable fullerene.
Testing of C60 fullerenes has been extensive. We now know that by treating the C60 fullerene in certain ways it is possible to attach different chemicals to the fullerene. It is also known that if fullerenes are combined with, and react to, certain other elements, it will increase the fullerene’s superconducting behavior.