Nature, It Turns Out, Made a Molecule Long Before People Did
A version of this article appears in print on July 10, 1992, on Page A00015 of the National edition of New York Times with the headline: Nature, It Turns Out, Made a Molecule Long Before People Did
By MALCOLM W. BROWNE
Our review of this article
Chemists have been fascinated by carbon-based molecules that were discovered a few years ago. These molecules called fullerenes have been found to live in a rock that has been in existence since our planet began.
This discovery was reported in New York's Journal, has left scientists mystified, since none of them can explain where these molecules originated from or which enigmatic mineral carried them.
This discovery has created a new chemistry dimension, and a group of fascinating molecules to scientists just like Tinker Toy are to small children. Fullerenes might have several commercial applications in areas such as pharmaceuticals to rocket fuel, this what one chemist said when requesting for money to conduct the research. This is a scarce and ancient mineral.
Geochemists at Arizona State University accidentally discovered natural fullerenes while they were analyzing the coal-like mineral sediments that were formed about 600 million years ago during the Precambrian era. Scientists noted this precious black mineral near the Shun’ga town in Russian Karelia. They later named the crystal shungite, after Shun’ga town where they were discovered.
Dr. Peter R. Buseck, who was heading a team of Arizona State investigators, recently came across fullerenes in shungite crystals that they were investigating using a High- Resolution Electron Microscope He had been quoted in an earlier interview saying that one of the investigators, Dr. Wang Su, had recorded an image of fullerenes packed in a row.
Dr. Semeon J. Tsirpursky, a Russian scientist, joined the Arizona State investigators to continue his research on shungite crystals that he had started while he was still in the Soviet Union. He was surprised to see that the electron micrographs recorded by Dr. Wang Su were almost similar to the ones he had taken some time back on shungite crystal molecules.
Subsequent studies have confirmed that fullerene was present in the Precambrian rock. Dr. Robert Hettich subjected a sample to a spectrometer mass analysis where they were sorted out based on their electric charges and masses. He found out that shungite crystals had two kinds of fullerenes 60 and 70 based on their carbon atoms.
Fullerenes are made in the laboratory at higher temperatures and gas pressures which are controlled. It is not possible to make outside these laboratory conditions.
The origin of shungite is still mysterious till to date Two Russian scientists, M.V Bogdanova and I.V. Volkova were reported saying that they found a wood-like structure, meaning that shungite was like coal that was obtained from fossil plants. The problem with these findings was that no single plant formed the coal deposits existed during the Precambrian era, an era where life was limited to single-cell organisms.
Shungite was embedded in a rock that corresponded to the Precambrian age strata and is still hard to understand how the carbon mineral had embedded in the fissures.
Dr. Buseck said that the mineral was scarce that even the Smithsonian Institution did not have any samples of shungite.
Besides their scientific applications, fullerenes have other important uses.
For instance, when certain metals are connected to fullerenes at high temperatures, they conduct electric current without any resistance, this means fullerenes may act as superconductors.
The National Aeronautics and Space Administration believe that fullerenes will be employed as propellants for ion rockets used in interstellar missions.
Scientists in USA and France have realized that they can use fullerenes to produce diamonds under laboratory conditions. They offer more benefits compared to using carbon for the same purpose. You will be required to use very high temperatures to convert carbon to diamond than when using fullerenes.
Scientists are still studying how fullerenes could be possible raw materials for lubricants, constructing optical switches, molecular pills, and catalysts.
The first fullerene molecule was discovered in 1985 by two scientists. But they existed way before man began to live on the planet. But you may wonder why it took a very long time for it to be discovered.
Fullerenes are named after Buckminster Fuller, who was an architect designing geodesic domes.
They have given rise to a new branch of chemistry. Inside the molecule, every carbon atom serves to hold the fullerene structure together and help external particles to attach to it. Countless chemical combinations can be achieved using fullerene. This article is a must-read for all young scientists who want to know about fullerenes and their applications.