Material and energy intensity of fullerene production

Environ Sci Technol. 2011 Mar 15;45(6):2353-9. doi: 10.1021/es103860a. Epub 2011 Feb 18.


Fullerenes are increasingly being used in medical, environmental, and electronic applications due to their unique structural and electronic properties. However, the energy and environmental impacts associated with their commercial-scale production have not yet been fully investigated. In this work, the life cycle embodied energy of C(60) and C(70) fullerenes has been quantified from cradle-to-gate, including the relative contributions from synthesis, separation, purification, and functionalization processes, representing a more comprehensive scope than used in previous fullerene life cycle studies. Comparison of two prevalent production methods (plasma and pyrolysis) has shown that pyrolysis of 1,4-tetrahydronaphthalene emerges as the method with the lowest embodied energy (12.7 GJ/kg of C(60)). In comparison, plasma methods require a large amount of electricity, resulting in a factor of 7-10× higher embodied energy in the fullerene product. In many practical applications, fullerenes are required at a purity >98% by weight, which necessitates multiple purification steps and increases embodied energy by at least a factor of 5, depending on the desired purity. For applications such as organic solar cells, the purified fullerenes need to be chemically modified to [6,6]-phenyl-C(61)-butyric acid methyl ester (PCBM), thus increasing the embodied energy to 64.7 GJ/kg C(60)-PCBM for the specified pyrolysis, purification, and functionalization conditions. Such synthesis and processing effects are even more significant for the embodied energy of larger fullerenes, such as C(70), which are produced in smaller quantities and are more difficult to purify. Overall, the inventory analysis shows that the embodied energy of all fullerenes are an order of magnitude higher than most bulk chemicals, and, therefore, traditional cutoff rules by weight during life cycle assessment of fullerene-based products should be avoided.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Carbon Footprint / statistics & numerical data
  • Conservation of Natural Resources*
  • Fullerenes / chemistry
  • Fullerenes / economics*
  • Fullerenes / isolation & purification
  • Manufactured Materials
  • Particle Size
  • Solar Energy


  • Fullerenes