Researchers at the
Technically known as fullerenes, these spherical carbon molecules have shown great promise for uses in medicine, solar energy, and optoelectronics. One small hiccup, however, has hindered development of a deeper understanding of these peculiar structures over the past few decades: No one knows exactly how they are formed.
Although several processes for making fullerenes are well documented, there are two competing theories about the mechanisms at work at the molecular level. The first and oldest is the "bottom-up" theory, which says these carbon cages are built atom-by-atom, like the slow construction of a Lego model. The second, more recent theory takes a "top-down" approach, suggesting instead that fullerenes are formed when much larger structures break into constituent parts.
After several years of debate with little more than computational models in support of how the top-down theory might work, researchers led by
The discovery appeared online
"Understanding the molecular mechanics of how fullerenes and their many variations are formed is not just a curiosity," said Dorn, who has been researching metallofullerenes - fullerenes with a few atoms of metal held within - for more than two decades. "It would give us insights into new, better ways to prepare them. Fullerenes and metallofullerenes are already involved in hundreds of biomedical studies. The ability to create large numbers of a wide variety of metallofullerenes would be a giant building block that would take the field to new heights."
The medicinal promise of metallofullerenes stems from the atoms of metal that are caged within. Because the metal atoms are trapped in a cage of carbon, they do not react with the outside world, making their side-effect risks low in both number and intensity.
For example, one particular metallofullerene with gadolinium at its core has been shown to be up to 40 times better as a contrast agent in magnetic resonance imaging scans for diagnostic imaging than options now commercially available. Current experiments are also directed at using metallofullerenes carrying therapeutic radioactive ions to target cancer tissue.
"A better understanding of the formation of fullerenes and metallofullerenes may allow the development of new contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging at commercial-level quantities," said
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