Carbon - the Building Material of the Future

Dr. Richard Smalley, one of the discoverers of the buckyballIn the past, stone, bronze, iron, steel, and more recently plastic, were used as building materials.  Nanotech will use carbon, the most versitile element the universe because it is the lightest atom that can bond with four other atoms.  (Silicon also has four atomic bonds, but it is heavier).  Carbon occurs in three forms: graphite, where carbon atoms are arranged in sheets, like sheaves of paper, with only the weakest forces holding them together; diamond, where each atom is part of a continuous crystalline lattice, creating a structure that is almost impossible to break, and fullerene, the recently discovered third form of carbon, in which a sheet of carbon atoms bends back upon itself to form a spherical structure identical to the geodesic dome of the revolutionary architect and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller, hence the name.  The sixty carbon atom cluster, the first to be discovered, is known as, yes, Buckminsterfullerene.  Since then, "buckyballs" of other sizes have been discovered; 70 atom versions, 32 atom, 50, 76, even giant 120, 240 and 540 atom variants.   Even more extraordinary was the discovery in 1991 of "buckytubes" in which the graphite sheets form not spheres but hollow cylinders a nanometer in diameter but upto a thousand times as long.  Diamond-like material ("diamondoid"), buckyballs and buckytubes are the perfect building blocks for microscopic nano-machines; incredibly tough yet versatile.  More recently it has been pointed out that DNA can also serve as an excellent structural framework.

above images from NanoTechnology Magazine

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text by M.Alan Kazlev
page uploaded 7 November 1998, last modified 24 May 2003