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Soccer Ball-Shaped Molecule Takes Physics Lab by Storm

by Sue Kropp

Related Links:
Induced Infrared Absorption of Molecular Hydrogen in Solid C60
It Slices! It Dices! Nanotube Struts its Stuff (New York Times, July 22)
Tempest in a Tiny Tube (Chemical and Engineering News, January 14)

Padilla and Fairbanks prepare a liquid nitrogen bath into which the highly pressurized cylinder containing the buckyballs is lowered.

AUGUST 12, 2002--The soccer balls scattered throughout Stephen FitzGerald's lab might seem a little unusual to the casual observer, but they serve a scientific purpose. For FitzGerald, an assistant professor of physics, the balls are a way to represent a molecule he's spent years studying.

FitzGerald is studying a recently discovered form of carbon, C60, known as "Buckminster Fullerene." Because of its unwieldy name, scientists often refer to the molecule as a buckyball.

"C60 is unique because of its spherical shape," FitzGerald says. "It's the only naturally occurring spherical molecule that scientists have discovered to date. And the odd thing is that it forms the exact shape and pattern of a soccer ball."

FitzGerald's first encounter with buckyballs in the lab yielded dramatic results. Together with his students, Marie Rinkoski '02 and Scott Forth '02, he authored a paper that was published just six months after the initial experiment, beating out scientists at Penn State who had been working on a similar project by one month.

But FitzGerald's research didn't end with the publication of his first experiment with C60; instead, he's continuing his work this summer. FitzGerald and his two student assistants, Matthew Fairbanks '03 and Jerome Padilla '03, are running the same experiment again, but testing variables such as temperature and pressure to see if it affects their results.

"Practically speaking, we're interested in how this material might be used as a molecular sponge to soak up other types of smaller molecules, " says FitzGerald. "When you put a group of buckyballs together, they arrange in a very symmetric, lattice-like structure that can trap other types of molecules in the gaps between them. If we could trap, for example, hydrogen molecules, we might be able to use this technology to advance fuel cell research."

On a more theoretical level, FitzGerald is interested in how the internal behavior of the trapped molecule is altered by confining them to the very small space in between the buckyballs.

To track the hydrogen's behavior, FitzGerald and his students must first get the molecules into the buckyball lattice. This is done using a special gas-handling system that they designed and built especially for this project.

Fitzgerald, Fairbans, and Padilla juggle tasks around the handmade gas-handling system to accomplish the experiment.

"The gas-handling system allows us to force hydrogen under very high pressure into a cylinder filled with buckyballs, trapping the hydrogen between the carbon molecules," says Fitzgerald. "By measuring pressure increases and decreases at different temperatures we can determine just how many molecules have become trapped. In the fall we will repeat these experiments with other gases, such as helium, neon, argon, and nitrogen to see how these molecules interact with C60."

Although his experiments with C60 might contribute to making fuel cells an everyday reality, FitzGerald is more concerned with what the theoretical aspects of his research offers students.

"This type of experiment illustrates a real life example of one of the first theoretical models that physicists use to introduce students to quantum mechanics," FitzGerald says. "It's the classic 'particle-in-a-box' experiment. Quantum mechanically, how does a particle that is trapped in a box interact with its environment if we consider variables like the size of both the particle and the box? Using buckyballs and hydrogen in the lab is exciting because I'm taking an idealized theoretical model and creating a real-life example for my students."




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