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Big Bucks for Bucky-balls

Posted on January 18th, 2016 by in New Materials & Applications

Buckyballs

Image by Visitor7 (Own work), via Wikimedia Commons

Looking to pick up a few extra dollars before the holiday credit card bills roll in? Seems there is building demand for endohedral fullerenes – the world’s most expensive material. With a little bit of know-how and a spare arc reactor, you too can cash in at $160 million per gram.

A technology startup spun out of Oxford University in the UK called Designer Carbon Materials announced they recently sold their first 200 microgram sample of endohedral fullerenes for an astounding £22,000, the equivalent of $32,000 USD, which works out to be the $160 million per gram mentioned earlier. To put that dollar amount in perspective, gold is currently trading around $1100 per ounce or $39 per gram. A loose 1 carat diamond averaging $3700 is $18,500 per gram. Finally, the most expensive food item in the world – Beluga Caviar at $5000 per kilogram is a mere $5 per gram.

Similar in shape to the geodesic dome popularized by its namesake Buckminster Fuller, endohedral fullerenes have a spherical configuration made of 60 carbon atoms with an additional atom or ion trapped inside. Where it gets interesting – and profitable – is when containing a nitrogen atom, they can be applied to miniaturize an atomic clock. According to an article published in The Telegraph, the founder of Designer Carbon Materials and a nanomaterials scientist, Dr Kyriakos Porfyrakis stated, “Imagine a minaturised atomic clock that you could carry around in your smartphone. This is the next revolution for mobile.” This innovation could bring the accuracy of your GPS from 1 square meter to 1 square millimeter. Triangulating on your smartphone, Google Maps could then pinpoint you sitting in your living room recliner as opposed to just the house on your street.

Now that you know the “what” to create, we should probably understand more about the “how” of producing endohedral fullerenes. After all, if this is to be a successful cottage industry we’ll certainly have to tool up the assembly line. As an engineer and lifelong maker, I never met a tool whose purchase I couldn’t rationalize. However, the arc-reactor required in this case is not something you can pick up at the local home improvement store. Similarly, my collection doesn’t include the equipment for alternative means of fullerene synthesis through laser ablation, plasma arcing, or combustion synthesis. Fortunately, the folks over at Nova on PBS put together a fascinating documentary called Making Stuff: Stronger that explains the process:

After some cursory research, it appears I have neither the experience or the equipment to make a plausible attempt at getting into the bucky-ball business. However, my day job is highly rewarding, providing exposure to the latest advancements in emerging technical research. As our understanding of how to manipulate materials at the nanoscale continues to grow, applying currently undiscovered knowledge will be an inspiring source of innovation.

If you are fortunate enough to have experience with nanomaterials in your career, share your thoughts in the comments section below. Don’t forget to follow us on your favorite social media channel.

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