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Buckyball molecules: Incredible scientific find could lead to nanotech advances

Researchers discover boron “buckyball”
Researchers discover boron “buckyball”
Photo by Oli Scarff/Getty Images

The scientific community is buzzing this week after it was announced that a group of researchers have experimentally observed the first ‘buckyballs’ made entirely from boron atoms. The findings were published in the online journal Nature on July 13, 2104.

The discovery of a new form of a pure element is a rather rare occurrence, especially for a common element. Therefore, reports of such discoveries such as the recent buckyball molecules generate an unusual amount of excitement among scientists.

When carbon buckyballs, soccerball-shaped molecular structures, were first discovered back in 1985, it triggered the nanotech revolution. Now, this new kind of buckyball made of the element boron could lead to a whole new line of useful nanomaterials, Brown University News wrote in a recent report.

Researchers from Brown University, Shanxi University and Tsinghua University in China have shown that a cluster of 40 boron atoms forms a hollow molecular cage similar to a carbon buckyball. It’s the first experimental evidence that a boron cage structure — previously only a matter of speculation — does indeed exist.

“This is the first time that a boron cage has been observed experimentally,” said Lai-Sheng Wang, a professor of chemistry at Brown who led the team that made the discovery. “As a chemist, finding new molecules and structures is always exciting. The fact that boron has the capacity to form this kind of structure is very interesting.”

Wang and his team of scientists spotted the structure while looking for analogues of graphene made of boron. They discovered that clusters of 40 boron atoms seemed to be unusually stable, but they didn’t know what form these clusters were taking. Further calculations and experiments revealed that they had made two stable structures — one an almost flat molecule, the other a hollow, ball-like structure made of tesselated shapes, similar to the carbon buckyball.

Although Wang says it is too early to say what applications the molecule may lend itself to, the buckyball molecules could mean innovations in nanomaterials as well as uses in hydrogen storage.

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