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ACS News

November 1, 2010
Volume 88, Number 44
p. 36

Buckyballs Named A Landmark

Fullerene discovery helped launch nanoscience field

Ann Thayer

ACS President Francisco (from left) and Houston Mayor Annise Parker with the plaque presented to O’Brien, Kroto, Curl, and Rice University President Leebron. Ann Thayer, C&EN
TEAM EFFORT ACS President Francisco (from left) and Houston Mayor Annise Parker with the plaque presented to O’Brien, Kroto, Curl, and Rice University President Leebron.
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Award-winning discoveries are remarkable in and of themselves, but many stimulate great change. The serendipitous discovery of fullerenes is one example. Not only were fullerenes an entirely new form of carbon, but their identification kick-started nanoscience and nanotechnology research and changed the way we think about chemistry and materials. The history of the discovery has been well chronicled, most notably when the scientists responsible won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

On Oct. 11, when the 1985 discovery of fullerenes was honored by the American Chemical Society as its 67th National Historic Chemical Landmark, the change it has brought to Rice University in Houston, was evident as well. The research was conducted in the Rice lab of chemistry and physics professor Richard E. Smalley, who passed away in 2005. The remaining members of the original research team gathered for the chemical landmark ceremony and an informal discussion of their work.

Their collaboration was reluctant. Rice professor Robert F. Curl Jr. and Sir Harold W. Kroto, who was then at the University of Sussex, in England, wanted to understand the formation of carbon molecules in interstellar dust. With persistent pestering, they eventually convinced Smalley to use his laser-supersonic cluster beam apparatus to vaporize and condense carbon.

“There wasn’t a huge amount of excitement in the lab—what we were looking for in the experiments were traditional carbon molecules,” noted California Institute of Technology chemistry professor James R. Heath, who was a graduate student with Smalley at the time. “It was just carbon and it was known.” What they didn’t know was that factors of size and shape would “end up putting carbon at the forefront of one of the hottest materials of the past 25 years,” he explained.

What they found—with the help of graduate students Sean O’Brien and Yuan Liu—were new forms of pure carbon. A prevalent and stable one consisted of a hollow sphere of 60 carbons. After deciphering its structure, they named it “buckminsterfullerene,” or buckyball, in tribute to author and inventor Richard Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic domes mirrored the molecule’s shape.

“The discovery of fullerenes is without a doubt a seminal scientific achievement,” ACS President Joseph S. Francisco said upon awarding the plaque to Curl and Rice President David W. Leebron. “This discovery and what came out of it really changed in many ways the path and success of this university,” Leebron told the celebrants.

Soon after Smalley arrived at the university, he had the foresight in 1979 to set up the Rice Quantum Institute, which reaches across seven departments. After the buckyball discovery, Smalley lobbied the university administration for about $30 million to establish what has become the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science & Technology. In addition to creating an infrastructure, he recruited faculty and promoted the nanotech agenda both at Rice and internationally. These efforts, Curl said, “are what really have made Rice a leader in nanotechnology.”

The university also houses the Center for Biological & Environmental Nanotechnology and the International Council on Nanotechnology, a multistakeholder group that communicates information on nanotechnology-related issues.

“Nanotechnology has done a tremendous job in destroying barriers and supporting the types of collaborations now at the frontiers of science,” Heath remarked about the multidisciplinary nature of today’s nanotech-related R&D efforts.

The 25th anniversary of the buckyball discovery and the landmark award concluded a yearlong celebration at Rice called the “Year of the Nano.” Extensive outreach activities and symposia included a four-day conference held on Oct. 11–14 featuring the Nobel Laureates and other leaders in nanoscience and technology.

Smalley in 1986 atop the AP2, the cluster-beam apparatus in which C<sub>60</sub> was found. Rice U
STAR SEARCH Smalley in 1986 atop the AP2, the cluster-beam apparatus in which C60 was found.
Chemical & Engineering News
ISSN 0009-2347
Copyright © 2011 American Chemical Society
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