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Move over, graphene. There's a new super-material in town: Graphullerene

New family of carbon super-structures discovered for futurologists to fizz over

Graphene, that much-hyped super-material yet to transform industry, has competition on the block in the form of a related 3D carbon structure made up of linked balls.

The new material, dubbed graphullerene, could have potential applications in new kinds of optical and electronic devices owing to its ability to confine and polarize light as well as its quantum properties.

graphullerene flake

A graphullerene flake, magnified and filtered to remove aperiodic pixel noise and represent the lattice superstructure. Illustration: Meirzadeh, E; Evans, AM; Rezaee, M, et al

Researchers led by Columbia University associate professor of chemistry Xavier Roy developed the new structure by combining two existing forms of carbon. The first, graphene, is the well-known two-dimensional lattice of carbon atoms which provoked such enthusiasm and speculation following its discovery at the UK's University of Manchester in 2004. The second is fullerene, which forms the carbon lattice into a ball, named after 20th century futurist and engineer Buckminster Fuller.

The resulting two-dimensional structure of linked carbon balls is called graphullerene, and its three-dimensional solid, graphullerite. Graphullerene is made up of layers of linked fullerenes peeled into ultra-thin flakes from a larger graphullerite crystal.

Roy told online publication that because each ball was made up of 60 carbon atoms, fullerenes could be linked in a number of different ways, resulting in a variety of electronic, magnetic, and optical properties. The current result – published in Nature this week – is just one possible configuration, he said.

"Graphullerite… crystals are charge neutral and the exfoliated molecularly thin flakes have no residual counterions or impurities, providing a platform for the investigations of confined light, and the construction of quantum-materials-based devices. This study also reveals that there is an entire family of higher and lower-dimensional super-atomic [forms] of carbon that may be chemically prepared and studied," the paper said.

First author and Columbia post-doctoral researcher Elena Meirzadeh created the first crystals of graphullerite in a high-temperature process involving a magnesium scaffold that was later removed with acid after a year's worth of work.

"I thought it would fall apart, but it remained intact. Seeing an intact, pure carbon crystal that we could then easily exfoliate and study was a great surprise," she told

Exciting though it may be, discoveries like this can become the victim of hype. In 2011, then UK chancellor George Osborne backed graphene with £50 million ($60 million) in government funding to take the discovery from the "British laboratory to the British factory floor," but the material has yet to make much of an impact in wider industry – though research is ongoing.

In 2019, Nature urged patience with new material discoveries, pointing out that "bringing a new material to market has the potential to shift entire industries." It could take 20 to 30 years before science-based innovations translate into commercial activities, it argued, pointing out that there were 134 years between the discovery of silicon in 1824 and the creation of the silicon chip in 1958.

Roy said fullerenes are already used to build organic photovoltaic cells and in medicine as contrast agents for MRI and X-ray imaging and to deliver drug therapies, while graphene is being actively explored for potential uses in electronics, energy applications, and more.

"Now we've combined them together into this new form of carbon. We don't know exactly what will come out of this work, but it will be very exciting to explore," he said. ®

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