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The Basics of Buckyballs

By Jeff Clark
Tuesday, October 24, 2006

If you want to understand the next investment mania, you’ll want to understand a strange word: buckyball.
Despite the ability of the word “buckyball” to make fourth-graders laugh uncontrollably, buckyballs form the foundation of the nanotechnology boom... a revolution that could prove to be as big as the Internet.
To fully understand buckyballs, you might have to dust off your old high-school chemistry textbook. But here’s a quick and dirty primer...
The carbon atom is the single most important building block in the field of nanotechnology. It earned this distinction – over atoms of any other element on the periodic table – because of its unique bonding ability. Specifically...
Carbon atoms can bond with any other atom. When carbon atoms bond with different types of atoms, they form molecules that display the properties of the atoms with which they bonded.
  • Carbon atoms can bond with four different atoms at a time. That’s more than atoms of any other element. The ability to bond with four other atoms allows carbon atoms to bond to each other and make a chain – and to bond with other kinds of atoms at various points along the chain. This creates a wide range of potential combinations of atoms in a molecule and, therefore, a wide range of potential properties.
  • No other element in the periodic table bonds as strongly to itself and in as many ways as the carbon atom. Short chains of carbon atoms display the properties of a gas. Longer chains create a solid, like plastic. Carbon atoms can even form very hard materials, like diamonds, by bonding together in two- or three-dimensional lattice formations.
  • A buckyball is a molecule containing 60 carbon atoms. Each carbon atom is bonded to three adjacent carbon atoms, and the entire grouping forms a sphere. This unique molecular shape and composition is useful in tons of applications.
For example, in health and medicine, buckyballs are used as antioxidants to counteract free radicals in the human body.
Free radicals are molecules or atoms that have unpaired electrons. Scientists believe these molecules can cause many types of cancer when they react with cells in the body. An antioxidant is a molecule that can supply an electron and neutralize a free radical.
When a buckyball meets a free radical, an available electron from one of its carbon atoms bonds with the unpaired electron, nullifying the harmful molecule.
Another use for buckyballs is to deliver drugs directly to infected areas of the body. Infected areas have different pH levels than healthy areas (pH measures the acidity of a solution). By using buckyballs to link the medicine with a molecule that reacts to changes in pH, researchers can create drugs that are only released at the infected area.
Buckyballs can also be used in manufacturing.
For example, DuPont and ExxonMobil are using buckyballs to develop stronger polymers. Sony is developing a more efficient fuel-cell membrane. German industrial giant Siemens has developed a buckyball-based light detector. And Seagate is using buckyballs to develop diamond-hard coatings for computer disc drives.
While very few buckyball applications are making anyone big money just yet, get ready to see this word in headlines over the coming few years.
Buckyballs serve as the “wheelbarrows and pickaxes” of the nanotechnology gold rush. And as I wrote in these pages last Friday, I believe this “tiny” gold rush could produce the biggest gains you could possibly make in the next few years.
Best regards and good trading,

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