Eight years of tinkering with exotic carbon-60 molecules, dubbed fullerenes for their resemblance to Buckminster Fuller's geodesic domes, hasn't yet produced the commercially useful catalysts, superconductors, and superstrong plastics that scientists initially predicted. So researchers at Japan's National Institute of Materials & Chemical Research in Tsukuba City and Nissan Motor Co. in Tokyo kept the structure but decided to build it using different atoms.

They recently ran supercomputer simulations that concluded that a fullerene with 60 nitrogen atoms is plausible. The software models suggest that N60 would resemble C60's structure without its stability. Nitrogen gas would probably have to be frozen and compressed, then blasted with a powerful laser. The resulting clusters--assuming any appeared--would be highly volatile. Exposed to heat, they'd revert instantly to gas, releasing enormous energy in the process. That might lead to commercially useful explosives or rocket fuels, says Takehiro Matsunaga, the institute's chief researcher. His simulations show that N60 could pack 10% greater lift than the liquid oxygen used to launch today's rockets.

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