A polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) is a hydrocarbon (i.e., compound of hydrogen and carbon), more specifically, an aromatic hydrocarbon (including a ring), arranged in benzene rings (rings of six joined carbon atoms) interconnected like chickenwire (fence material of wire joined forming similar six-sided shapes). There is no limit to the types of PAHs, merely depending on how many such rings make up the molecule.
On Earth, PAHs are pollutants, some carcinogenic. The infrared signatures of PAH emissions have been observed in interstellar space, suggesting theories about how compounds are formed in molecular clouds. It has been suggested that PAHs are the building blocks of life, first created in such clouds. They may be a component of interstellar dust.
At least some aromatic hydrocarbons, including at least some PAHs exhibit fluorescence, which can be used to detect them. Such fluorescence might be a usable biosignature usable in in situ investigations, such as on solar system moons and planets.
PAHs can be flat, but can be curved and joined together to form tubes, ovals, or spheres of "chickenwire", termed fullerines. A sphere of sixty carbon atoms (C60) arranged like typical soccer ball (football) is termed a buckminsterfullerene, or for short, a bucky ball (terms which are also sometimes used for similar carbon molecules, e.g., with more carbon atoms squeezed into the pattern). Bucky balls and other fullerines have been detected in interstellar clouds.