For a long time it has been suspected that fullerene and its derivatives could form naturally in the universe. These are large carbon molecules shaped like a football, salad bowl or nanotube. An international team of researchers using the Swiss SLS synchrotron light source at PSI has shown how this reaction works. The results have just been published in the journal Nature Communications.
“We are stardust, we are golden. We are billion-year-old carbon.” In the song they performed at Woodstock, the US group Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young summarised what humans are essentially made of: star dust. Anyone with a little knowledge of astronomy can confirm the words of the cult American band – both the planets and we humans are actually made up of dust from burnt-out supernovae and carbon compounds billions of years old. The universe is a giant reactor and understanding these reactions means understanding the origins and development of the universe – and where humans come from.
In the past, the formation of fullerenes and their derivatives in the universe has been a puzzle. These carbon molecules, in the shape of a football, bowl or small tube, were first created in the laboratory in the 1980s. In 2010 the infrared space telescope Spitzer discovered the C60 molecules with the characteristic shape of a soccer ball, known as buckyballs, in the planetary nebula Tc 1. They are therefore the biggest molecules to have been discovered to date known to exist in the universe beyond our solar system.
But how do they actually form there? A team of researchers from Honolulu (USA), Miami (USA) and Tianjin (China) has now completed an important reaction step in the formation of the molecules, with active support from PSI and the vacuum ultraviolet (VUV) beamline of the synchrotron light source Swiss SLS. “PSI offers unique experimental facilities and that’s why we decided to collaborate with Patrick Hemberger at PSI,” says Ralf Kaiser from the University of Hawaii in Honolulu, the leading international researcher in this field.
Read more on the PSI website
Credit: Shane Goettl/Ralf I. Kaiser