IF YOUR life’s ambition is to become very, very rich, consider getting into the business of producing ‘endohedral fullerenes’, the world’s most expensive material. Scientists at Oxford University in the UK announced that a spin-off lab called Designer Carbon Materials is now producing endohedral fullerenes. And it recently sold off its first sample of the material to the tune of $32,000 for 200 micrograms (1 microgram is equal to one-millionth of a gram), which is about one-fifteenth the weight of a snowflake, or one-third the weight of a human hair.
First discovered in 1985, endohedral fullerenes are created by incarcerating an atom (not necessarily nitrogen) into a cage of 60 carbon atoms. In these cages, also known as ‘buckminsterfullerenes’, carbon atoms align in a similar way to the vertices of a football, which is where their nickname ‘bucky balls’ comes from. These caged molecules have greatly enhanced physical and electronic properties compared to ‘normal’ ones. In case of N@C60 (that is, nitrogen atom-based endofullerenes), the ‘super power’ is a long electron-spin lifetime.
The research of one of the most expensive materials on earth hasn’t been cheap either. In 2013, Oxford University, together with two partners, received a 1.5-million-pound research grant to develop manufacturing methods ‘for increasing the production of endohedral fullerenes to the gram scale’.
These things aren’t just outrageously expensive curiosities—when they contain nitrogen atoms, they actually have the potential to change how we keep time because of their extra-long electron spin lifetime. Scientists are now investigating the possibility of using them in atomic clocks—the most accurate time-keeping system in the world—and the Oxford team expects that, in the future, they could be used to make all kinds of devices more accurate than ever.
This is because endohedral fullerenes have the potential to downsize atomic clocks from the size of a cabinet to a microchip, so we could, for example, install them in our phones or integrate them with our GPS devices.
The only other material on earth that could rival the astronomical cost of endohedral fullerenes is antimatter, but no one’s in the business of producing antimatter to sell commercially just yet. We’re still several years away from mini atomic clocks going into our portable devices, but Designer Carbon Materials founder Kyriakos Porfyrakis was quoted as saying that the consortium of UK and US researchers that bought their first sample of endohedral fullerene is on the case.