C60 is a naturally occurring molecule of carbon. It is part of the group of carbon molecules known as fullerenes, one of the four carbon molecule groups we know to occur naturally. Popularly, C60 is often referred to as a buckyball.
C60 is most startling because of its beautiful structure. With sixty carbon atoms, the molecule forms a roughly spherical shape, similar to that of a soccer ball. It is comprised of twenty hexagons and twelve pentagons, all connected with carbon atoms at each corner. C60 is popularly called the most symmetrical molecule because of the large amount of symmetry operations able to map themselves on to it.
C60 was discovered in 1985 by a group of scientists and published in Nature the same year. It was discovered tangentially to research they were undertaking, which ultimately proved unsuccessful. Luckily, the scientific community fell in love with buckyballs and the group was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics in 1996 for their discovery of C60. C60 and the related molecules were christened fullerenes, and later referred to as buckyballs, in honor of Buckminster Fuller, a 20th century architect renowned for his use of geodesic domes.
After its discovery, C60 was available only in very limited amounts because of the difficulties involved in producing it. It was soon discovered to be naturally occurring, however, and by 1990 techniques had been developed to produce it in much larger amounts with less work.
Solid forms of stable carbon have long fascinated humans, as the two most famous forms make readily apparent. Both graphite and diamonds have played a fundamental role in science and the popular imagination for much of human history. It is no surprise, then, that the solid states of C60 are an object of much attraction for the scientific community.