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  • Nobel Laureate, "Buckyball" Discoverer Dies
Oct 2005
HOUSTON, Texas, Oct. 31 -- Nobel laureate Richard Smalley, co-discoverer of the buckyball and widely considered to be one of the fathers of nanotechnology, died Friday at the age of 62 after a long battle with cancer.

Rice University professor Smalley shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with fellow Rice chemist Robert Curl and British chemist Sir Harold Kroto for the 1985 discovery of a new form of carbon nicknamed buckyballs. Shaped like soccerballs and no wider than a strand of DNA, buckyballs each contain 60 carbon atoms arranged in a hollow sphere resembling two conjoined geodesic domes. Smalley coined the name "buckminsterfullerene" for the discovery in honor of architect and geodesic dome inventor Buckminster Fuller.

Fullerenes -- the family of compounds that includes buckyballs and carbon nanotubes -- remained the central focus of Smalley's research until his death. According to colleagues, Smalley's belief that nanotubes were a wonder material that could solve some of humanity's problems -- such as clean energy, clean water and economical space travel -- led him to crusade for more public support for science and to help found a business, Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc., in 2000 to make sure his discoveries made it to the marketplace where they could benefit society. Smalley was convinced that nanotubes could only be used to solve society's problems if they were manufactured in bulk and processed economically.   

Colleagues and scientific leaders say it is hard to overestimate the role Smalley played in founding and fostering the development of nanotechnology, which draws its name from the nanometer, or one-billionth of a meter. Buckyballs measure one nanometer in diameter, and their discovery is frequently cited as one of the earliest and most influential discoveries in the development of nanotechnology.

"In my view, this was a singular event in the history of nanotechnology," said Neal Lane, senior fellow in science and technology at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy, in a statement. "It not only created a whole new field of fullerene chemistry, it immediately made feasible the notion of making things from the bottom up, just as physicist Richard Feynman had predicted 50 years earlier."

According to colleagues, Smalley coined the term "wet" nanotechnology to apply to the biological systems that operate at the nanoscale and "dry" nanotechnology to the physical/chemical systems that nanotechnologists were developing.

"We are about to be able to build things that work on the smallest possible length scales, atom by atom, with the ultimate level of finesse," Smalley told the US House of Representatives while testifying in 1999 in support of the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), which was launched in 2000. "These little nanothings, and the technology that assembles and manipulates them -- nanotechnology -- will revolutionize our industries and our lives." Fellow scientists say Smalley's testimony on Capitol Hill, in particular, helped establish him as one of leading US voices for nanotechnology.

"I think of Rick as the father of nanotechnology in the sense that, better than anyone else, he articulated the vision of its future and how it would impact the world, and he did so in a kind of universal language which was understandable and inspiring to everyone," said William Barnett, trustee emeritus and former chair of the Rice board of trustees.

One of Smalley's most ambitious programs, the "armchair quantum wire" project, began in April with $11 million funding from NASA. Smalley described the quantum wire during his acceptance of the Distinguished Alumni Award from Hope College in May, calling it "a continuous cable of buckytubes that we expect will conduct electricity 10 times better than copper yet have only one-sixth the weight, a zero coefficient of thermal expansion and a tensile strength greater than steel. If we succeed, we'll be able to rewire the world, replacing aluminum and copper in virtually every application and permitting a vast increase in the capacity of the nation's electrical grid."

Smalley was a member of the National Academy of Sciences, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Science, the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the recipient of numerous awards.

For more information about Smalley's work, visit:

The use of atoms, molecules and molecular-scale structures to enhance existing technology and develop new materials and devices. The goal of this technology is to manipulate atomic and molecular particles to create devices that are thousands of times smaller and faster than those of the current microtechnologies.
The technology of generating and harnessing light and other forms of radiant energy whose quantum unit is the photon. The science includes light emission, transmission, deflection, amplification and detection by optical components and instruments, lasers and other light sources, fiber optics, electro-optical instrumentation, related hardware and electronics, and sophisticated systems. The range of applications of photonics extends from energy generation to detection to communications and...
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