The discovery 30 years ago of soccer-ball-shaped carbon molecules called buckyballs helped to spur an explosion of nanotechnology research. Now, there appears to be a new ball on the pitch.
Researchers from Brown University, Shanxi University and Tsinghua University in China have shown that a cluster of 40 boron atoms forms a hollow molecular cage similar to a carbon buckyball. It's the first experimental evidence that a boron cage structure—previously only a matter of speculation—does indeed exist.
"This is the first time that a boron cage has been observed experimentally," said Lai-Sheng Wang, a professor of chemistry at Brown who led the team that made the discovery. "As a chemist, finding new molecules and structures is always exciting. The fact that boron has the capacity to form this kind of structure is very interesting."
Wang and his colleagues describe the molecule, which they've dubbed borospherene, in the journal Nature Chemistry.
Carbon buckyballs are made of 60 carbon atoms arranged in pentagons and hexagons to form a sphere—like a soccer ball. Their discovery in 1985 was soon followed by discoveries of other hollow carbon structures including carbon nanotubes. Another famous carbon nanomaterial—a one-atom-thick sheet called graphene—followed shortly after.
After buckyballs, scientists wondered if other elements might form these odd hollow structures. One candidate was boron, carbon's neighbor on the periodic table. But because boron has one less electron than carbon, it can't form the same 60-atom structure found in the buckyball. The missing electrons would cause the cluster to collapse on itself. If a boron cage existed, it would have to have a different number of atoms.
Wang and his research group have been studying boron chemistry for years. In a paper published earlier this year, Wang and his colleagues showed that clusters of 36 boron atoms form one-atom-thick disks, which might be stitched together to form an analog to graphene, dubbed borophene. Wang's preliminary work suggested that there was also something special about boron clusters with 40 atoms. They seemed to be abnormally stable compared to other boron clusters. Figuring out what that 40-atom cluster actually looks like required a combination of experimental work and modeling using high-powered supercomputers.
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