WEST LAFAYETTE, Ind. - Research at Purdue University suggests synthetic carbon molecules called fullerenes, or buckyballs, have a high potential of being accumulated in animal tissue, but the molecules also appear to break down in sunlight, perhaps reducing their possible environmental dangers.
Buckyballs may see widespread use in future products and applications, from drug-delivery vehicles for cancer therapy to ultrahard coatings and military armor, chemical sensors and hydrogen-storage technologies for batteries and automotive fuel cells.
"Because of the numerous potential applications, it is important to learn how buckyballs react in the environment and what their possible environmental impacts might be," said Chad Jafvert, a professor of civil engineering at Purdue.
The researchers mixed buckyballs in a solution of water and a chemical called octanol, which has properties similar to fatty tissues in animals. Jafvert and doctoral student Pradnya Kulkarni were the first to document how readily buckyballs might be "partitioned," or distributed into water, soil and fatty tissues in wildlife such as fish.
Findings indicated buckyballs have a greater chance of partitioning into fatty tissues than the banned pesticide DDT. However, while DDT is toxic to wildlife, buckyballs currently have no documented toxic effects, Jafvert said.
"This work points out the need for a better understanding of where the materials go in the environment," he said. "Our results show they are going to be taken up by fish and other organisms, possibly to toxic levels. This, however, indicates only the potential of buckyballs to bioaccumulate. They could break down in the environment or in an organism once taken up."
Researchers do not yet know whether buckyballs will break down in the environment or will be metabolized by animals, which would reduce the risk of accumulating in fatty tissues.
"For example, we don't bioaccu
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