Do buckyballs exist in space?

nice C60 pic

Note: these articles have been published in InfoChem, the supliment to Education in Chemistry produced by The Royal Society of Chemistry.

A few years ago the focus of a BBC Horizon programme was the discovery of C60, Buckminsterfullerene, and the family of similar carbon-cage molecules, the fullerenes [1]. The fullerenes were discovered in 1985 by British chemist Harry Kroto and colleagues in the US. The chemists were doing laboratory experiments designed to probe the chemistry involved when molecules are first created in the atmospheres of cool, red, giant stars, and then ejected into the interstellar medium (ISM) or ‘space’. It was an accidental discovery - a great example of serendipity and led to the award of the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1996 [2].

A wonderful story
In these pioneering laboratory experiments, the scientists, using a high-powered laser, vaporised carbon into helium gas, which expanded into a vacuum chamber and cooled – thus simulating the conditions of a star pumping out material into ISM. They analysed the tiny amounts of material produced using a mass spectrometer. They detected molecules that were known to be in the ISM as well as the totally unexpected fullerenes - in particular, the C60 molecule.

It took five years to find a simple way of making C60 in gram quantities, which was 60 part of my PhD. On the same Horizon programme, I explained my part in this wonderful story. If you create a high temperature electrical spark between two carbon rods you can vaporise carbon. If you do this in an inert gas such as helium, a black smoke is produced, 10 per cent of which is made up of C60 and the larger fullerenes. The fullerenes are soluble in solvents such as toluene and so can be extracted and purified.

but are there fullerenes in space?
Since the discovery of C60 a common misconception has evolved - i.e. the molecules were actually discovered in space. The usual method of detecting molecules in space is by observing their radiowave emission. Molecules with dipole moments - ie ones that are polar, with one end is more positively or negatively charged than the opposite end emit microwaves as they tumble and rotate in the gas clouds (even though they are pretty cold 20 - 100K they still have enough thermal energy to rotate). These feeble signals can be picked-up on Earth by using large steerable parabolic radio dishes with sensitive radio/microwave receivers.

The Horizon programme ended with the speculation that if C60 was in space, it might be responsible for certain unidentified, astronomical emissions and absorption’s in the ISM known as the diffuse interstellar bands (DIB). For a while carbon chains seemed a promising candidate but so far neither these nor C60 seem to provide a full explanation.

The symmetry of (pure un-reacted) C60 means that it has no dipole moment so it does not have a radio signature. To measure the infrared, vibrational absorption features of C60, a background infrared source is needed (perhaps from a star or other hot object) but so far the right circumstances have not been observed. The ultraviolet features of C60 are in regions of the spectrum where there are strong signals from other widespread materials in space, so all in all no unambiguous detection of C60 has so far been made.

It also likely that C60 in space will have reacted with hydrogen (the most abundant element in the universe) or other atoms, thus forming many possible products and complicating matters further. There are, however, carbon rich stars that might be a good source of carbon and also warm enough for infrared investigations and so might be good regions in which to search for fullerenes.

[1] Molecules with sunglasses, The discovery of Buckminsterfullerene, Horizon, BBC TV, 1992.
[2] Nobel prize lectures
[3] CSC C60 page


How teachers can use these articles in a lesson

Why Hollywood Science

Open University Hollywood Science web site

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Dr Jonathan Hare, The University of Sussex
Brighton, East Sussex. BN1 9QJ.

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