This image from the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope shows NGC 7026, a planetary nebula.
Located just beyond the tip of the tail of the constellation of Cygnus (The Swan), this butterfly-shaped cloud of glowing gas and dust is the wreckage of a star similar to the Sun.
Planetary nebulae, despite their name, have nothing to do with planets. They are in fact a relatively short-lived phenomenon that occurs at the end of the life of mid-sized stars. As a star’s source of nuclear fuel runs out, its outer layers are puffed out, leaving only the hot core of the star behind. As the gaseous envelope heats up, the atoms in it are excited, and it lights up like a fluorescent sign.
After exploring for 25-years, scientists have solved the question of how the iconic family of caged-carbon molecules known as buckyballs form.
The results from the Florida State University and the National Science Foundation-supported National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, or MagLab, in Tallahassee, Fla., shed fundamental light on the self-assembly of carbon networks. The findings should have important implications for carbon nanotechnology and provide insight into the origin of space fullerenes, which are found throughout the Universe.
Many people know the buckyball, also know as fullerene by scientists, molecule, C60, from the covers of their school chemistry books. Indeed, the molecule represents the iconic image of “chemistry.” But how these often highly symmetric, beautiful molecules with extremely fascinating properties form in the first place has been a mystery. Despite worldwide investigation since the 1985 discovery of C60, fullerene has kept its secrets. How? It’s born under highly energetic conditions and grows ultra fast.
“The difficulty with fullerene formation is that the process is literally over in a flash – it’s next to impossible to see how the magic trick of their growth was performed,” says Paul Dunk, lead author of the work.
In the study, published in Nature Communications at the end of May, the scientists describe their ingenious approach to testing how fullerenes grow. “We started with a paste of pre-existing fullerene molecules mixed with carbon and helium, shot it with a laser, and instead of destroying the fullerenes we were surprised to find they’d actually grown.” The fullerenes were able to absorb and incorporate carbon from the surrounding gas.
The buckyball research results will be important for understanding fullerene formation in extraterrestrial environments. Recent reports by NASA showed that crystals of C60 are in orbit around distant suns. This suggests that fullerenes may be more common in the Universe than we thought.
“The results of our study will surely be extremely valuable in deciphering fullerene formation in extraterrestrial environments,” said FSU’s Harry Kroto, a Nobel Prize winner for the discovery of C60 and co-author of the current study.