Fullerenes are a form of carbon molecule that is neither graphite nor diamond. They consist of a spherical, ellipsoid, or cylindrical arrangement of dozens of carbon atoms. Fullerenes were named after Richard Buckminster Fuller, an architect known for the design of geodesic domes which resemble spherical fullerenes in appearance. A spherical fullerene looks like a soccer ball, and are often called "buckyballs," whereas cylindrical fullerenes are known as "buckytubes" or "nanotubes."
Fullerenes were discovered as an unexpected surprise during laser spectroscopy experiments at Rice University in September 1985. The 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to Professors Robert F. Curl, Jr., Richard E. Smalley, and Sir Harold W. Kroto for their discovery. Fullerene molecules consist of 60, 70, or more carbon atoms, unlike diamond and graphite, the more familiar forms of carbon.
Fullerenes occur only in small amounts naturally, but several techniques for producing them in greater volumes have been suggested. The modern technique uses a benzene flame to produce fullerenes. Other techniques include the vaporization of graphite rods and catalytic chemical vapor deposition from ethanol vapor.
The fullerene family of carbon molecules possess a range of unique properties. A fullerene nanotube has tensile strength about 20 times that of high-strength steel alloys, and a density half that of aluminum. Carbon nanotubes demonstrate superconductive properties, and single nanotubes up to 4 centimeters in length have been synthesized. A range of companies exists to develop nanotubes for commercial applications, including computer memory, electronic wires, and materials science. One day nanotubes could be used to create futuristic computers not possible with conventional lithographic techniques.
Nanotubes have been a central focus in the buzz surrounding the emerging field of "nanotechnology." The association is sometimes misleading; when physicist Richard Feynman originally proposed building manufacturing systems that assemble products on the molecular level ("molecular nanotechnology"), he was talking about tiny, productive machine systems, not the creation of exotic nano-scale materials like fullerenes using macro-scale chemistry techniques. A tiny factory built entirely out of fullerenes would qualify as molecular nanotechnology, but fullerenes on their own do not. This is a critical distinction often overlooked by some academics, venture capitalists, and technologists who are fond of using the word "nanotechnology" as a tool to attract funding or attention.