Today’s Wonder of the Day was inspired by Elizabeth. Elizabeth Wonders, “What is buckminsterfullerene?” Thanks for WONDERing with us, Elizabeth!

Have you ever thought about just how old our planet is? Science tells us that Earth was formed about 4.5 billion years ago. Humans have only been around for about the last 300,000 years. In the grand scheme of things, we’re still pretty new here!

As you would expect, humans are still learning a lot about this world we’re a part of. Each day, people have the chance to make new discoveries. Today’s Wonder of the Day is about one such finding that could affect the future of human life. What are we talking about? The buckminsterfullerene!

That’s a pretty long word, isn’t it? Luckily, this carbon molecule also has a nickname—buckyballs. It may also help to know it’s named after a person named Buckminster Fuller. He was an architect who made domes that hold up their own weight. The domes are formed by many small triangles

A team led by chemists Richard Smalley, Robert Curl, and Harold Kroto discovered buckminsterfullerene in 1985. The molecule consists of 60 atoms of carbon. It looks like a soccer ball or one of Buckminster Fuller’s domes. Instead of triangles, though, the atoms form hexagons and pentagons. Smalley, Curl, and Kroto later won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their finding.

Scientists have known about buckyballs since 1985, but they’re still learning about their possible uses. Experts have also been able to make derivatives of the molecule in a lab. However, buckyballs are also found in nature, namely in soot.

In 2010, NASA scientists found buckyballs in space. This happened after the death of a white dwarf star. The Spitzer Space Telescope identified the molecules in the star’s remains. Experts now believe buckyballs may cause the dimming wavelengths from some stars identified by Mary Lea Heger in 1919.

How might people use buckyballs in the future? Experts are hopeful they could have many uses. The molecules may be especially helpful in medicine. For example, they are antioxidants. This could mean that buckyballs could help protect cells from free radicals

Buckyballs may also one day be used to fight viruses like HIV. They could help carry genes and medicine to the right place inside the body. The molecules may also have future uses in treating or preventing cartilage degeneration. They could do the same for osteoporosis, heart disease, and many other conditions.

Many experts believe the uses of buckyballs may be endless. Besides medicine, they could have applications in many other industries. However, more research on buckyballs is needed before they can be widely used.

What else are you WONDERing about the buckminsterfullerene? Did this Wonder of the Day have you on the edge of your seat? If so, maybe you have a future career waiting for you in chemistry. Who knows? The next big discovery could be yours!

Standards: NGSS.PS1.A, CCRA.R.1, CCRA.R.2, CCRA.R.4, CCRA.R.10, CCRA.W.2, CCRA.W.3, CCRA.W.4, CCRA.W.9, CCRA.L.1, CCRA.L.2, CCRA.L.3, CCRA.L.6, CCRA.SL.1

Wonder What's Next?

Which animal has the longest neck in Wonderopolis? The G-RAPH, of course!