Miniature “buckyballs” have been created for the first time, and hold the promise of new and unusual physical properties for nano-engineers to explore.

Buckminsterfullerenes – buckyballs – are molecular spheres in which carbon atoms form interlinked pentagons and hexagons that resemble the panels on a soccer ball. Buckyballs, and the related carbon nanotubes, are extremely strong and very good conductors of electricity. This had led then to be common components of nanodevices such as tiny soldering irons and thermometers.

Normally it takes 60 carbon atoms to construct a stable buckyball. But Su-Yuan Xie, from Xiamen University in south-east China, and colleagues made buckyballs from just 50 carbon atoms, by using a ring of 10 chlorine atoms as a belt to support the smaller structure.

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