"It was a total surprise," said Christine Beavers, a chemistry graduate student working with Professors Alan Balch and Marilyn Olmstead at the University of California-Davis. Beavers is first author of the study.
Fullerenes, sometimes called "buckyballs," are usually spherical molecules of carbon, named after the futurist R. Buckminster Fuller, inventor of the geodesic dome. The carbon atoms are arranged in pentagons and hexagons, so their structures can resemble a soccer ball.
An important rule -- until now -- is that no two pentagons can touch, but are always surrounded by hexagons.
The experiment was part of a project to find new, more predictable ways to make fullerenes, thereby creating compounds that could be both medically useful and well-tolerated in the body.
The other authors of the research paper -- appearing in this month's issue of the Journal of the American Chemical Society -- were Tianming Zuo and Kim Harich at Virginia Tech and James Duchamp at Emory and Henry College.
Notable deaths of 2014 [PHOTOS]