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Robert F. Curl, Jr. and Richard E. Smalley, Collaborators in the Discovery of Fullerenes

by Brian O'Donnell on Fri, August 18, 2017


To celebrate 70 years of advancing scientific knowledge, OSTI is featuring some of the leading scientists and works particularly relevant to the formation of DOE, OSTI, and their predecessor organizations and is highlighting Nobel laureates and other important research figures in DOE’s history.  Their accomplishments were key to the evolution of the Department of Energy, and OSTI’s collections include many of their publications.

The 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded jointly to Robert F. Curl Jr., Richard E. Smalley, and Sir Harold W. Kroto for discovery of new forms of the element carbon – called fullerenes – in which the atoms are arranged in closed shells.  Fullerenes are formed when vaporized carbon condenses in an atmosphere of inert gas.  The gaseous carbon is obtained by directing an intense pulse of laser light at a carbon surface.  The released carbon atoms are mixed with a stream of helium gas and combine to form clusters of a few to hundreds of atoms.  The gas is then led into a vacuum chamber where it expands and is cooled to some degrees above absolute zero.  The carbon clusters can then be analyzed with mass spectrometry.

Robert Curl, Jr. and Richard Smalley

A fullerene is a molecule of carbon most often in the form of a hollow sphere, ellipsoid, or tube.   Spherical fullerenes made of 60 carbon atoms, also referred to as Buckminsterfullerenes or buckyballs, resemble the balls used in soccer.  Fullerenes are similar in structure to graphite, which is composed of stacked graphene sheets of linked hexagonal rings.  Most fullerenes’ carbon atoms are arranged in both hexagonal and pentagonal rings; with the latter, fullerenes can be curved instead of flat.

This discovery heralded the dawn of nanotechnology, the science of building very small materials with unique properties.  Fullerenes greatly expanded the number of known carbon allotropes, which had previously been limited to graphite, graphene, diamond, and amorphous carbon such as soot and charcoal.  Buckyballs and buckytubes (cylindrical fullerenes, also called carbon nanotubes) have been the subject of intense research, both for their chemistry and for their technological applications, especially in materials science, electronics, and nanotechnology.

Robert Curl, the son of a Methodist minister, was born in August 1933, in Alice, TX. At an early age, he decided to pursue the study of chemistry.  He received a BA degree from Rice University in 1954 and went on to the University of California to study with Kenneth Pitzer (who later became president of Rice University) and received his PhD in 1957.  For a year, he was a research fellow at Harvard University, and in 1958, he became an assistant professor of chemistry at Rice University.  At Rice, he became a full professor and eventually chairman of the chemistry department.  Before the discovery of fullerenes, Curl had studied free radicals (atoms or molecules that generally undergo chemical reactions very readily), using their interactions with microwaves and tunable lasers to detect them and deduce the arrangements of their atoms, their electron configurations, and details of their behavior during chemical reactions.  

Richard Smalley was born June 1943 in Akron, Ohio.  Dr. Sara Jane Rhoads, his aunt, a professor of chemistry and one of the first women to become a full professor in the U.S.A., motivated him to pursue science.  He earned his bachelor’s degree in chemistry from the University of Michigan in 1965, and after spending a few years as a chemist with Shell Chemical, earned his PhD from the Princeton University in 1973.  In postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago, Smalley helped develop a laser-based technique to analyze jets of molecules moving at supersonic speeds.  He went to Rice in 1976 to collaborate with Curl, where they used a laser apparatus that Smalley built to study semiconductors.

During this collaboration, they were contacted by Harold Kroto about using their laser device to simulate the formation of carbon chains in red giant stars.  These experiments succeeded but also produced structures having 60 carbon atoms each, whose spherical atomic arrangement they determined.  For their discovery and further studies of these and other similar molecules, the three researchers were awarded the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

SciTech Connect, the portal to free-publicly-available DOE-sponsored R&D results, offers access to research on fullerenes, as well as to key reports by Curl and Smalley.

Curl retired in 2008 after 50 years at Rice University.  Smalley spent his career at Rice, eventually establishing the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology; in 2001, he became Director of the Carbon Nanotechnology Laboratory until his death in 2005. 

Page last updated on 2017-09-08 14:15

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Brian O'Donnell
Program Analyst/Communications Specialist, U.S. DOE Office of Scientific and Technical Information