A University of Hawaii researcher and her colleagues from NASA’s Space
Science Division have confirmed that a new form of carbon previously made in the
laboratory also exists in nature. The finding indicates that the pure carbon
molecules known as fullerenes could have been a factor in the early history of
Earth and might even have played a role in the origin of life. The scientists’ report will appear in the July 15 issue of the British
journal Nature. Becker also will share their findings with fellow scientists
during the triennial meeting of the International Society on the Origins of Life
July 11-15 in San Diego, Calif.

“It’s not every day that you discover a new carbon molecule in nature;
that’s what makes this interesting,” Becker says. “If it played a role in how
the earth evolved, that would be important.”

Fullerenes are soccer-ball shaped molecules (hence their name, which
honors geodesic-dome designer Buckminster Fuller) of 60 or more carbon atoms.
Their discovery in 1985 as only the third form of pure carbon (along with
diamonds and graphite) earned U.S. scientists Robert F. Curl Jr. and Richard E.
Smalley and British researcher Harold Kroto the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

The trio accidentally synthesized these three-dimensional forms of carbon
molecules in the laboratory while trying to simulate the high-temperature,
high-pressure conditions in which stars form.

Scientists hypothesized that fullerenes also exist naturally in the
universe. Becker, who earlier discovered the presence of fullerenes in deposits
at the site of the Sudbury impact crater in Ontario, Canada, and her colleagues
were able to document naturally occurring fullerenes by exploiting a unique
property characteristic of organic molecules. Unlike their pure-carbon cousins,
which maintain a solid state, fullerenes can be extracted in an organic solvent.

Becker crushed a piece of the Allende meteorite, demineralized the
sample with acids, and used the organic solvent to extract fullerenes from the
residue. The scientists found not only the C60 and C70 molecules believed to be
most prevalent, but also significant quantities of C100 to C400 molecules. This
is the first discovery of higher fullerenes in a natural sample.

Because the multiple atoms in the molecule form a hollow, closed cage
that can trap gasses inside, they may have delivered from their stellar
birthplace both the carbon that is an essential element to life and the
volatiles that contributed to the planetary atmospheres needed for the origin of
life. At the very least, the molecules and their contents will tell scientists
more about the early solar nebula or presolar dust existing when meteorites
like Allende were formed.

The research is supported by a grant from the NASA Cosmochemistry


Cheryl Ernst, University of Hawai’i, 808-956-5941, ernst@hawaii.edu

Luann Becker, UH Manoa, c/o Scripps Institution of Oceanography, 619-534-2995,
July 11-15

Louis Allamandola NASA Ames Research Center Space Science Division, 650-604-6890

Theodore Bunch, NASA Ames Research Center Space Science Division, 520-717-1916

Photo Available:
University of Hawai’i, 808-956-8856, ernst@hawaii.edu

For other Work by Luann Becker, see govt.us.oracle.com/~mars/