Nobelist in chemistry for co-discovering fullerenes, Rice University Homecoming Queen

Nobelist Rick Smalley.  Courtesy Rice University

Richard “Rick” Errett Smalley, best known for co-discovering the soccer ball-shaped “buckyball” molecule, died of leukemia on October 28, 2005, at the age of 62. He was a leading advocate of nanotechnology and its many applications, including its use in creating strong but lightweight materials as well as its potential to fight cancer. Upon his passing, the US Senate passed a resolution to honor Smalley, crediting him as the “Father of Nanotechnology.”

“Rick was the sort of scientist who was really interested in tackling only the really big problems,” wrote Harry Kroto, a colleague of Smalley, in the U.K. Guardian.

In 1984, an opportunity to take on a small problem was presented to Smalley when Bob Curl, a fellow researcher in Rice University’s chemistry department, introduced him to Kroto, then of the University of Sussex.

At the time, Smalley, then 40, was academically over the hill. His peers questioned whether Smalley would be remembered as just another good scientist. He was a physical chemist who had successfully designed an apparatus that cooled molecules so that they could be studied via spectroscopy—a medesignthod for deriving visual representations of a substance’s properties. He had begun this research path as a doctoral candidate at Princeton in the 1970s.

At Rice, he built a supersonic laser apparatus to study clusters of metals and semiconductors. His group led the field, able to publish with any incremental discovery. Kroto believed that long-chain carbon molecules could be formed in space, and he wanted to use Smalley’s laser equipment to mimic the stellar atmosphere.

“Rick didn’t really want to start working on carbon,” said Yuan Liu, then a graduate student lent from a neighboring lab, now a staff scientist at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “He said, ‘Who wants to work on carbon?’”

Among Smalley’s graduate students, the short answer was, no one. Their work on metal clusters had been successful; the carbon experiments were only expected to be a simple, two-week-long distraction. So they went ahead with the work.

“This was a favor to Harry Kroto, who was very persistent,” said Sean O’Brien, a former graduate student, now at Texas Instruments.

Kroto’s arrival in Houston in August, 1985 would mark the last time Smalley’s lab would focus on metal clusters.

The carbon experiments proceeded quickly with Kroto getting the results he wanted. However, a conspicuous peak in the mass spectra, indicating a large and highly symmetric carbon molecule, intrigued the researchers. After three days of experiments the Smalley group confirmed that the new molecule had a cage structure but the exact configuration of the carbons eluded them for another week.

On the night of September 9th, 1985, many of the researchers took work home and made attempts at a model. Harry Kroto had thought of a multidecker sandwich model. Jim Heath, perhaps the keenest graduate student working on the project (now a professor at Caltech) tried and failed with a gummy bear model. After attempts to create a computer model failed, Smalley tried a low-tech approach: paper. He constructed a model out of hexagonal cutouts and pentagons, the second of which allowed the cage to close. He’d made C


; it looked like a soccer ball.

Inspired by R. Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome in Montreal, Kroto named the molecule “Buckminster Fullerene,” with the “-ene” suffix describing the hybridized electronic states of the carbons. Fullerenes, the class of molecules similar to C60, includes larger carbon balls (for example, C

70, C84, C240

), and nanotubes (long tubes of carbon).

Within two days, the group produced a 1,000-word paper and sent it to Nature. Although Smalley thrived on competition, he was known for regularly sending hundreds of “preprints” of his papers to colleagues prior to publication. Curl said Smalley’s impulse to share was part of his love of encouraging argument.

“Rick always met disagreement with logic,” his Curl said. “People really learned how to think and carry on a scientific interchange.”

According to O’Brien, the Buckyball discovery was the one time Smalley regretted sharing—the results were easily reproduced and another lab could have beaten him to isolating the molecules.

Scientists were instantly taken with fullerenes, which joined graphite and diamond in the carbon family. While they were easy to synthesize, it would take five difficult years for Smalley to isolate them. Once he had, Smalley converted his lab, focusing solely on fullerenes and their applications in nanotechnology.

In 1996, Smalley shared the Nobel Prize in chemistry with Curl and Kroto. At 53, Smalley had found recognition as one of the world’s greatest scientists. Rice undergraduates named him homecoming queen that year. He listed it on his official CV, immediately below the Nobel.

“Rick was a genius, producing a new research field every two years or so,” said Curl.

In 2000, Smalley founded Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc., to commercialize emerging applications of nanotubes. A recent $11 million project funded by NASA called for the creation of the “armchair quantum wire,” a cable of buckyballs that would be 10 times more conductive than copper, but one-sixth its weight and stronger than steel.

“Above all else was his driving personality,” said O’Brien, looking back on his former boss. “He was so committed to doing great science.”

Smalley was born in Akron, Ohio, on June 6, 1943. He attended Hope College, and earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Michigan in 1965. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton after a brief stint at Shell Chemical Co. He did his post-doc work at the University of Chicago, where he developed his molecule-cooling nozzle.
Smalley joined the Rice faculty as an assistant professor in chemistry in 1976. He helped launch Rice’s Quantum Institute and the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, and was cross-appointed as a professor of physics in 1990. He was named to the rank of University Professor, Rice’s highest professorial distinction, in 2002.
He was a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Physical Society, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
In 1998, Smalley was diagnosed with leukemia, which he succumbed to 17 years later. He is survived by his fourth wife, whom he married shortly before his death, and his two sons, Chad, born in 1969, and Preston, born in 1997, nine months after the Nobel Prize announcement.

Originally published November 10, 2005

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