14 July 1999

Meteorite Reveals New Carbon Molecule

by Kate Melville

A new form of carbon that was previously only made in the laboratory has been found in a natural setting, and may have played a part in the origin of life on earth, researchers said recently.

Luann Becker of the University of Hawaii and NASA scientists found 'fullerenes' - round shaped molecules that had been synthesized in the laboratory in 1985 - in a crushed piece of the Allende meteorite that landed in Mexico in 1969.

"It's not every day that you discover a new carbon molecule in nature; that's what makes this interesting," Becker said "If it played a role in how the earth evolved, that would be important."

American scientists Robert Curl and Richard Smalley, of Rice University in Texas, and Harold Kroto, of England's University of Sussex, were awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for synthesizing the pure carbon - an accidental consequence of the vaporizing experiments they were conducting.

They named the molecules, the third form of pure carbon along with diamonds and graphite, "buckministerfullerenes" after Buckminister Fuller, who designed geodesic domes. The name is usually shortened to fullerenes, or buckyballs.

Becker and her colleagues extracted the molecules from the residue of a crushed piece of the meteorite. Their research was published in the science journal Nature.

They said the multiple atoms in the molecule form a closed cage that can trap gasses. The fullerenes could have delivered carbon, an essential element to life, and the volatiles that contributed to the planetary atmospheres essential for life.

"These large extra-terrestrial carbon clusters are either the first indication of higher fullerenes or are an entirely new range of aromatic carbon-rich molecules."