In 1996, a trio of scientists won the Nobel Prize for Chemistry for their discovery of Buckminsterfullerene–soccer-ball-shaped spheres of 60 joined carbon atoms that exhibit special physical properties.
Now, 20 years later, scientists have figured out how to turn them into buckybombs.
These nanoscale explosives show potential for use in fighting cancer, with the hope that they could one day target and eliminate cancer at the cellular level–triggering tiny explosions that kill cancer cells with minimal impact on surrounding tissue.
“Future applications would probably use other types of carbon structures–such as carbon nanotubes, but we started with buckyballs because they’re very stable, and a lot is known about them,” says Oleg V. Prezhdo, professor of chemistry at the University of Southern California and corresponding author of a paper on the new explosives published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.
Carbon nanotubes, close relatives of buckyballs, are used already to treat cancer. They can be accumulated in cancer cells and heated up by a laser, which penetrates through surrounding tissues without affecting them, and targets carbon nanotubes directly.
Modifying carbon nanotubes the same way as the buckybombs will make the cancer treatment more efficient–reducing the amount of treatment needed, Prezhdo says.
To build the miniature explosives, Prezhdo and his colleagues attached 12 nitrous oxide molecules to a single buckyball and then heated it. Within picoseconds, the buckyball disintegrated–increasing temperature by thousands of degrees in a controlled explosion.
The source of the explosion’s power is the breaking of powerful carbon bonds, which snap apart to bond with oxygen from the nitrous oxide, resulting in the creation of carbon dioxide, Prezhdo says.
Prezhdo collaborated with co-corresponding author Vitaly V. Chaban, who was at USC when the research was completed and is now at the Universidade Federal de São Paulo in Brazil with fellow co-corresponding author Eudes Eterno Fileti.
The São Paulo Research Foundation, the Brazilian National Council for Scientific and Technological Development, the US Department of Energy, and the Russian Science Foundation funded the study.