Fullerenes in space!

I was lucky enough to be at an RSC symposium last week, celebrating the 30th anniversary of C60, a.k.a. Buckminsterfullerene, and the achievements of Prof Sir Harry Kroto (one of the Nobel Laureates credited with its discovery). It was a great meeting – interesting people and inspiring talks, set within the historic surroundings of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s home, Burlington House in London.

What made it particularly inspiring was the first public presentation of a paper published the day before, entitled “Laboratory confirmation of C60+ as the carrier of two diffuse interstellar bands“, by John Maier and co-workers at the University of Basel. Why?

It’s been 30 years since the discovery of C60, when scientists accidentally found it when simulating the conditions in gas flowing out of ageing stars. It was postulated to be the cause of “diffuse interstellar bands”, mysterious blips in the spectrum of starlight caused by absorption by molecules in interstellar gas on its way to Earth. And the identity of those molecules could be a clue to the origins of life itself, but until now no-one has been able to prove what they are.

Finally, after 20 years of instrument development, Maier’s team has managed to simulate interstellar conditions – low, low vacuum and low, low temperature – and measure the spectrum of C60+ (positively charged C60) within it. And it’s a perfect fit for some of the DIBs, meaning that there’s C60 out there in the voids of space. Lots of C60.

Harry Kroto himself is quoted as saying, “As far as I’m concerned this is the scientific paper of the year“. It was certainly a great pleasure to be there for its first presentation.

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