Buckyballs a.k.a. Buckminsterfullerenes, are hollow spherical molecules made up entirely of carbon. They are named after Richard Buckminster (“Bucky”) Fuller because buckyballs look like the buildings he designed. The smallest buckyballs are made up of 60 carbon atoms and have diameter of about 1 nanometer.
These tiny molecules look like soccer balls except that a soccer ball is about 10 septillion times bigger than a buckyball! That is, a buckyball is 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 times smaller than a soccer ball. In the picture, the grey balls making up the buckyball represent individual carbon atoms.
Buckyballs were discovered in 1985 by Harry Kroto and Richard Smalley while blasting graphite with a laser. Graphite is also made up of only carbon atoms and looks like the walls of a buckyball but is a flat sheet instead of a sphere. Harry Kroto and Richard Smally noticed in their experiments that they were making a lot of molecules that had 60 carbon atoms and thought that they might be spherical but they couldn’t see them.
Later two other scientists, Wolfgang Krätschmer and Donald Huffman made some buckyballs of their own and were able to look at them with a transmission electron microscopy (TEM) and saw that the buckyballs really are spheres. Buckyballs are also related to carbon nanotubes and other molecules with different shapes that are made up of only carbon. All of these molecules are also known as fullerenes, which is why sometimes carbon nanotubes are called fullerene tubes.