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Buckyball: the magic molecule

•, Edelson, Edward; Fisher, Arthur
Although it's not too exciting to look at, this is the world's first production facility for a newly discovered, exotic material, dubbed "buckyball," that has such extraordinary potential that chemists and physicists around the country are lining up to pay $1,200 a gram for the stuff, roughly one hundred times the price of gold.

"This is the biggest news in chemistry I could have imagined," exclaims Robert Whetten of the University of California at Los Angeles.

The reason? Together with the plain-Jane carbon particles that make up most of the soot is a carbon molecule with a unique structure, totally different from that of the two previously known forms of carbon.

The discovery of a new kind of carbon came as a stunning surprise to most scientists. Carbon is the most intensely studied of all the elements because it is the basis for most of the molecules of life--the organic molecules. Look in any chemistry textbook and you'll read that for centuries research showed carbon came in just two basic structures: hard, sparkling diamond, whose carbon atoms are arranged in little pyramids; and dull, soft, slippery graphite, which consists of sheets of carbon-atom hexagons.

Those chemistry textbooks are now obsolete. There's a new basic form of carbon with an almost unbelievable structure: Its 60 carbon atoms form something that looks like a hollow soccer ball. It is the only molecule of a single element to form a spherical cage.

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