Carbon patterns

Several patterns or configurations (allotropes) pure carbon can take:

Image by Michael Ströck


Buckyball, Carbon 60

Here’s a structure that is not a regular polyhedra. Like a dodecahedron, it has 12 pentagons. However, each pentagon is surrounded by hexagons. Because it made up of more than one kind of polygon, it is not “regular” and not quite as symmetrical. Thus, it is not quite as simple to put together as a Platonic solid. Yet, it is still remarkably symmetrical and very sphere-like.

Does it look familiar?

This has the same geometry as a soccer ball!

It has 60 vertices and 32 faces (12 pentagons and 20 hexagons).

A scientist named Buckminster Fuller thought it up, before anyone discovered one in nature. It is often called a “Buckyball.” It is also called a “truncated icosahedron.”

Later, other scientists (Kroto, Smalley, Curl) speculated that Carbon could form such a shape. Then, sure enough it was discovered to exist. So Kroto, Smalley, and Curl won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It is Carbon 60 (C60), in which sixty carbon atoms are bonded together into this shape. Each of 60 carbon atoms is one of the 60 corners of this structure.

Recently, scientists found C60 within the “interstellar medium” in outer space. This demonstrates that complex carbon shapes like this could survive in outer space! That’s important because life forms are made up of complex carbon molecules, and this helps us think about whether or not simple life forms could develop in outer space. 

Below is a flat shape you can fold into the Buckyball (or “soccer ball,” or “Truncated Icosahedron,” or “C60,” whatever you want to call it). (We include it in your box, if you have a subscription to our Beautiful Discovery box.

You just fold together two sides at a time and tape together. It will curve inwards a little bit each time you tape together the sides.

If this flat pattern included only hexagons, it could not fold into a 3D shape. This would be the pattern of “graphene” (shown near the top of this page).

But here in this pattern there is a little space between the hexagons, so it can fold. Putting 12 pentagons (dodecahedron) in the spaces was a brilliant idea of Buckminster fuller and nature itself!