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Analytical Chemistry

The World According To Rick

Richard Smalley left his mark on science by laying the foundation for nanotechnology as we know it, then he tried to save the world

by Bethany Halford
October 9, 2006 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 84, Issue 41

Smalley (circa 1986) atop the AP2, the apparatus used to find C60.
Smalley (circa 1986) atop the AP2, the apparatus used to find C60.


The World According To Rick

Today marks the 10th anniversary of what maybe the most influential event in the history of nanotechnology. On Oct. 9, 1996, Robert F. Curl Jr., Harold Kroto, and Richard E. Smalley won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of fullerenes. It's not the buckyball's remarkable properties or some grand validation of nanoscience that makes the occasion momentous. Instead, the Nobel Prize became a watershed for nanotechnology because Rick Smalley was one of the three brilliant scientists who stood on a stage in Stockholm that December to claim it.

The field of nanotechnology exploded in the nine years between 1996 and Smalley's death from leukemia last October at age 62. It continues to grow apace, thanks in part to the momentum he built. In research, development, and funding, no single person pushed the field further than Smalley. "With his flamboyantly uncompromising and inspiring presentation style, he became the most visible champion of nanotechnology and its promise to lead to revolutionary sustainable technologies," Kroto wrote in Smalley's obituary for The Guardian .

To his colleagues, Smalley proselytized nanotechnology with a near-prophetic vision. So when the king of Sweden placed that coveted gold medal in his hand, the Rice University professor knew he had also been handed this golden opportunity: the chance to say something and have people truly listen.

As 2006's newly minted Laureates will soon discover, the same opportunity is granted to all Nobel Prize winners. A few squander it. Many further their own enterprise with it. Some follow their passions and try to change the world with it. Few use it as deftly as Smalley did.

Nobel Prize in hand, Smalley began knocking on doors at the highest levels of government. He spoke. They listened. Money poured into nanoscience research.

Nano's Starting Line
Credit: Courtesy of the White House
Smalley (fifth from left) was the only academic present when President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act in 2003.
Credit: Courtesy of the White House
Smalley (fifth from left) was the only academic present when President Bush signed the 21st Century Nanotechnology R&D Act in 2003.

Including the $1.2 billion in President George W. Bush's 2007 budget, over $6.5 billion has been invested in the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), a federal program that coordinates the efforts in nanoscale science, engineering, and technology for 25 different federal agencies. Mihail C. Roco, senior adviser for nanotechnology at the National Science Foundation and the key architect of NNI, says Smalley's prestige and passion gave NNI gravitas at a critical time. Many people worked hard to establish NNI, Roco points out, but without Smalley, it's unlikely the program would have achieved the same level of success in such a short time.

"Rick had a special kind of influence," Roco says. The Nobel Prize got legislators to listen to Smalley a little more closely, Roco adds. But it was the way he spoke that made those powerful men and women unlock the nation's coffers.

Roco points out that when scientists ask legislators to loosen taxpayers' purse strings for any type of promising new science, Washington's decisionmakers always want to know: Is this science fiction? "Speaking about the future, scientists are very careful not to make mistakes. They say, 'I don't have a crystal ball, but ... .' Rick spoke in a different way. He told stories."

Credit: P. M. Ajayan & R. S. Kane/PNAS2004 (left), Vin Crespi/Penn State Physics (center), Kenji Hata & Don Futaba/Science 2004 (right)
Capillary forces from evaporating fluids push carbon nanotubes into a thin foam (left image) that may have applications in cushioning impacts or sound dampening; (center image) what the view from within a flattened, twisted carbon nanotube would be; (right image) pillars of densely packed nanotubes (250 µm in diameter and 1 mm tall) grow from lithographically patterned catalyst islands.
Credit: P. M. Ajayan & R. S. Kane/PNAS2004 (left), Vin Crespi/Penn State Physics (center), Kenji Hata & Don Futaba/Science 2004 (right)
Capillary forces from evaporating fluids push carbon nanotubes into a thin foam (left image) that may have applications in cushioning impacts or sound dampening; (center image) what the view from within a flattened, twisted carbon nanotube would be; (right image) pillars of densely packed nanotubes (250 µm in diameter and 1 mm tall) grow from lithographically patterned catalyst islands.

When Smalley testified before the House of Representatives about establishing NNI in 1999, he had been fighting leukemia for over a year. "I sit before you today with very little hair on my head. It fell out a few weeks ago as a result of the chemotherapy I've been undergoing to treat a type of non-Hodgkin's lymphoma," Smalley told the representatives. "While I am very optimistic, this chemotherapy is a very blunt tool. It consists of small molecules which are toxic-they kill cells in my body. Although they are meant to kill only the cancer cells, they kill hair cells too, and cause all sorts of other havoc.

"Now, I'm not complaining. Twenty years ago, without even this crude chemotherapy, I would already be dead. But 20 years from now, I am confident we will no longer have to use this blunt tool. By then, nanotechnology will have given us specially engineered drugs, which are nanoscale cancer-seeking missiles, a molecular technology that specifically targets just the mutant cancer cells in the human body and leaves everything else blissfully alone. ... I may not live to see it. But, with your help, I am confident it will happen. Cancer-at least the type that I have-will be a thing of the past."

Roco still recalls how the legislators lingered, waiting to shake Smalley's hand after the hearing.

"It takes a certain amount of care and skill to speak to members of Congress," says Neal F. Lane, a former director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and former president Bill Clinton's chief science adviser from 1998 to 2001. "It's not that they're not intelligent people. It's just that most aren't scientists, and they don't have a lot of time."

Even after he won the Nobel Prize, Smalley continued to teach chemistry and physics to undergraduates at Rice.
Even after he won the Nobel Prize, Smalley continued to teach chemistry and physics to undergraduates at Rice.

The academics who are most effective in Washington—Lane calls them civic scientists—can "tell an interesting story in a succinct manner, where not only is it clear what the fundamental science and engineering aspects are, but also what the impact on society will be. And you have to do it in such a way that what you say sounds credible and not hyped," Lane says.

According to Lane, who also worked alongside Smalley as a physics professor at Rice, Smalley's communication skills coupled with his scientific credibility and his excitement, enthusiasm, and passion made him extremely influential.

Smalley's influence was so great, critics grouse, that his pet project of carbon nanotechnology received more funding than it merited, possibly at the expense of other nanoscience research.

"Rick always felt that even if you're in academic science, you ought to be able to go to the people who are paying you 'the taxpayers' and justify in terms they can understand what you're doing and why," says James R. Heath, one of the Rice graduate students who discovered C60. He is currently a chemistry professor at California Institute of Technology.

James M. Tour, a chemistry professor at Rice and close friend of Smalley's, points out that Smalley didn't really start to impact science policy until he was in his mid- to late-40s. "It wasn't until the discovery of C60 that he would begin his life as a civic scientist," Tour says.

For Smalley, there was life before the buckyball. Long before that nanorevelation, he became famous in physical chemistry circles for building massive machines to tackle science's most slippery problems. He built the 12-foot-tall AP2 apparatus to create clusters so he could understand catalysis on the atomic scale. Although he didn't know it then, this machine would later open the door to nanoscience for Smalley, and consequently, many others.

"Rick liked to say, 'We do things big in Texas,' " Kroto recalls of his first encounter with Smalley clambering over AP2, a monster so large you needed to go inside it to clean it. The machine would play a part in changing Kroto's life too, as well as those of Curl and graduate students Heath and Sean O'Brien. The fullerene five, as lovers of alliteration might call them.

Bright Idea
Credit: Ray H. Baughman/Science © 2005
Sheets made from carbon nanotube yarns light up when a voltage is applied.
Credit: Ray H. Baughman/Science © 2005
Sheets made from carbon nanotube yarns light up when a voltage is applied.

The story of those five scientists and the two weeks in September 1985 when they discovered "Bucky," as Smalley liked to call C60, has been told by writers far more gifted than the author of this article. It would be foolish to try to reproduce it here, other than to say this: It's tempting to compare Smalley, Kroto, Curl, O'Brien, and Heath to the giants of the Age of Exploration. The latter were searching out new trade routes, and the former were trying to understand the chemistry surrounding carbon stars. In both cases, their efforts unveiled an entirely new world.

It's also tempting to say that before September 1985, the world of pure carbon was flat. At that time, scientists had little interest in diamond's tough scaffold or graphite's honeycombed plains. The discovery of C60 changed that. Buckminsterfullerene, that little soccer ball of carbon atoms, worked like a seed and planted itself in the minds of chemists and physicists around the world, where it sprouted and flourished into today's vast landscape of carbon nanotechnology.

It's a nice story, but it's not true. It's hyperbole, an occupational hazard for writers attempting to capture the discovery of fullerene's significance.

"We thought we were the first people to ever think of C60," Curl says. "That turned out to be far from the truth." Just like others had come to the New World long before Christopher Columbus, buckminsterfullerene had been bouncing around chemists' brains for some time.

When their first C60 paper had been accepted in Nature (1985, 318, 162), the group sent preprints of the article to every organic chemist they could think of. By Curl's estimate, 200 copies went out. "It turned out to be a very good thing," he recalls.

They learned that Orville L. Chapman, an organic chemist at the University of California, Los Angeles, had been trying to synthesize Bucky for five years. No less than three theoretical treatments of C60 had appeared in the literature. The earliest paper suggesting carbon could form a stable 60-atom structure came from the Japanese physical organic chemist Eiji G. Osawa of Toyohashi University of Technology (Kagaku 1970, 25, 854).

AP2 was not the first machine to make a buckyball. Andrew Kaldor's group at Exxon in New Jersey had studied carbon with AP2's cousin in 1984. Although a cluster of 60 carbon atoms stood out in their mass spectrum, it wasn't enough to give them pause. "I suspect the members of that original group at Exxon still regret that they did not consider in more depth why the peak for C60 appeared to be about 20% more intense than its neighbors," Smalley said in his Nobel lecture. "But to be fair, at the time, neither did we."

Scientific zeitgeist-the phenomenon wherein the same scientific discovery is made at about the same time by multiple investigators working independently-tells us that even if the fateful events of September 1985 had never taken place, someone eventually would have discovered C60.

But ask Smalley's contemporaries in research, business, and government if they think the field of nanotechnology as we know it would exist if anyone other than Rick Smalley had helped discover fullerenes, and you hear the same answer over and over: No.

"I think people have forgotten that at first it was very difficult, particularly for chemists, to grasp that carbon could curve into a sphere," says Kroto, now on the faculty at Florida State University, Tallahassee.

At first, Smalley, along with Kroto and Curl, protected nascent nanoscience by fending off the attacks from such nonbelievers. Once scientists were convinced, Smalley nurtured nanotechnology. He sent buckyballs to other researchers. He helped organize fullerene conferences. He egged his competitors on.

Between 1985 and 1990, about 250 fullerene papers were published. Then, two physicists, Donald R. Huffman of the University of Arizona and Wolfgang Kraetschmer of Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics, in Heidelberg, Germany, figured out how to mass produce C60. By 1991, just one year later, the number of buckyball papers reached into the thousands.

Smalley's group was working on the same problem when Huffman and Krätschmer beat him to the finish line. After seeing a preprint of the paper, Smalley called Huffman and asked for a sample of C60 to show at a meeting he was about to attend. " 'It's really important for chemists to see C60, to just see it,' " Huffman recalls Smalley imploring.

Huffman had no idea what kind of person Smalley was. Since the paper hadn't come out yet, and their competition had been fierce, Huffman put his name and the names of his coworkers prominently on the buckyball-coated slide he sent to Houston.

Soon after, he got a letter from Smalley. "Dear Don," it read: "It was great to get your express mail package today and see Bucky for the first time. Although I was certainly a bit jealous when I read your great paper, it's just so incredibly beautiful. I just can't stop smiling." Not long after, dark crystals of C60 graced the cover of Nature when the journal published Huffman and Krätschmer's report (Nature 1990, 347, 354).


But Bucky ultimately turned out to be a disappointment. By the time Smalley, Kroto, and Curl accepted the Nobel Prize in 1996, no practical applications had been forthcoming, despite six years of intensive research efforts.

"Winning the Nobel Prize put fullerenes on the public stage," Curl explains. "Our friends and neighbors would ask us, 'What can the stuff do? What good is it?' I personally felt awkward trying to answer this question."

They were like parents of a brilliant and adored child, who, despite every advantage, had grown into a feckless adult still living in the basement. Some of chemistry's brightest minds were working on fullerenes at top labs with mountains of cash. Yet no applications were imminent. Bucky needed to get a job. Smalley keenly felt that responsibility, Curl says, and it stung him.

When it became clear to Smalley that Bucky would never get a real job, at least not in Smalley's lifetime, he abandoned fullerene research completely. He focused on carbon nanotubes, first discovered in Japanese physicist Sumio Iijima's lab at NEC Corp., in Tokyo. It was a more difficult system, but one Smalley thought had richer promise. The Smalley lab's slogan became, "If it ain't tubes, we don't do it."

In the past, Curl says, Smalley's research strategy had been to forge fearlessly into a research frontier, establish a foundation, and leave it to do the same thing in an entirely different area. "Before 1990, he'd adopt a new project every two or three years. After nanotubes, that was it."

"Rick wasn't the sort of person who liked to revisit fields," adds Robert C. Haddon, a professor at the University of California, Riverside. "He liked to pioneer them."

Smalley brought this same pioneering spirit to the field of carbon nanotubes. In May of 1996, Smalley and Haddon, a scientist with Bell Labs at the time, had dinner with several colleagues on the eve of a conference in Israel. "Rick said: 'Tomorrow the world is going to change.' " Haddon remembers it well. "Rick was not given to overstatement."

The following day, Smalley presented his process for making large batches of high-quality carbon nanotubes (Science 1996, 273, 483). Haddon reviewed the paper for Science. "I said they should publish it twice," he recalls. Haddon says the report prompted him to leave Bell Labs so he could strike out on his own nanotube research project.

Haddon wasn't Smalley's only convert. Not by a long shot. The evangelism Smalley had for Bucky only grew stronger with carbon nanotubes.

During a four-day carbon nanotube symposium honoring Smalley at last month's American Chemical Society national meeting in San Francisco, giant after intellectual giant in carbon nanotechnology echoed the words of IBM's Phaedon Avouris: "I owe my research in carbon nanotubes to Rick." Avouris said he had zero interest in nanotubes until the day Smalley called him and suggested he give nanotubes a try.

Even those who were already true believers in carbon nanotechnology, such as Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor Mildred S. Dresselhaus, say much of the early work on nanotubes "wouldn't have happened without Rick, because he provided the nanotubes."

Smalley gave his competitors the basic materials they needed to beat him. Consider how radical that attitude is for a scientist. Scientists hoard their golden eggs. They don't give them away and expect their riches to grow 10-fold.

Take German chemists Otto P. H. Diels and Kurt Alder, for example. In the original report of their Nobel Prize-winning cycloaddition reaction (Ann. 1928, 460, 98) and its use in total synthesis, Diels and Alder wrote, "We explicitly reserve for ourselves the application of the reaction discovered by us to the solution of such problems."

Even more remarkable, chemists honored their wishes for 23 years. The Diels-Alder reaction didn't figure prominently in natural product synthesis until 1951, the year after Diels and Alder accepted their Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

"For a pretty long time, Rick basically had the world's supply of carbon nanotubes," says Bob Gower, president and chief executive officer of Houston-based Carbon Nanotechnologies, a company he started with Smalley. Thanks to Smalley's laser-oven process, he could make a few grams of nanotubes at a time. "Rick just wanted to get the material into the hands of competent researchers," Gower says.

Of course, Smalley won the Nobel Prize just a few months after the nanotube paper was published. After that, he had no reason to keep the world's supply of nanotubes all to himself.

It's more romantic, though, to imagine Smalley as a pioneer on the carbon nanotechnology frontier, looking out upon the vast new carbon world and seeing more than any one person could explore in a lifetime.

That's one heroic version of Smalley's life, although probably not the one he would want people to remember. He'd prefer that you remember his crusade to solve the world's energy crisis, which he took up in earnest in 2002. Smalley foresaw a bleak future when the world reached the bottom of its proverbial oil barrel: war, starvation, filthy air. It was a problem someone would have to solve. Why not take a crack at it? After all, he was Rick Smalley.

"Rick just studied the problem like the incredible brain that he was," says Wade Adams, director of the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science & Technology at Rice. "He stewed on it for a while and decided that we need to convert our global energy system from one that transports energy in the form of mass, oil for example, to a system that transports electrons around the world."

Smalley believed carbon nanotubes could be the wires and storage materials in this new energy system. He envisioned them laid out in a grid, crisscrossing the globe. Get enough electrons flowing and you solve the energy problem. Solve the energy problem for everyone, and peace and prosperity will follow.

It sounds more than a little self-serving that Smalley chose carbon nanotubes-the focus of his research and a product sold by the company he founded-as the central solution to a problem as massive as the energy crisis. Adams disagrees. The entire field of nanotechnology would be necessary for generating and collecting energy, he says. Smalley just thought carbon nanotubes were the best bet for storing and transporting energy.

"Smalley had a true mastery of how to select problems in science. He just selected one blockbuster after another," Haddon remarks. "If he'd lived a bit longer he'd have probably solved the energy crisis."

Some People say Smalley's message is starting to get through. The Department of Energy got a healthy boost in the 2007 federal budget, and President Bush gave renewable energy a shout out in the 2006 State of the Union address. Others say prices at the pump topping $3.00 per gallon accomplished more for renewable energy in six months than Smalley did in three years.

Either way, with gas prices creeping down, it's too bad Smalley isn't around to remind Washington's most powerful people that we have an energy problem. Debbie Smalley, Rick's widow, is trying to keep his message alive with EnergySOS. The program aims to teach energy awareness to children as part of its mission.

Smalley's legacy in nanotechnology seems far more secure. It will be hard to fritter away the government's $6.5 billion investment in nanoscience. And Smalley's former students and postdocs now hold positions at many of the world's most prestigious schools.

"We all miss Rick Smalley," says John H. Marburger III, director of the White House Office of Science & Technology Policy and Bush's science adviser. "Rick left a legacy of optimism about the promise of nanotechnology. The field has many champions, and will continue to thrive, but Rick's good natured and thoughtful approach to the contentious issues will be missed."

Smalley built the capital of his nanoscience kingdom at Rice. Even though the king has been gone for nearly a year, Rice continues to bustle with nanotechnology activity. Rice's Tour, along with his colleague Matteo Pasquali, have taken over the labs at the research center Smalley founded. "I'm moving research more toward applications," he says. The center took a hit in funding immediately after Smalley passed away, going from a working budget of $3.5 million to $2 million. Tour says the funding has almost returned to $3.5 million.

In fact, if you didn't notice the center was renamed the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science & Technology in his memory, you might think nothing has changed at all. You might even think Smalley still walks its halls.

Most of Smalley's graduate students and postdocs continue to work on the projects they established with him. His executive assistant, Hazel Cole, says, "I have to say I still work for him in some fashion." A year after his death, Smalley is still influential enough to show up on the cover of this magazine.


How Smalley managed to conjure that air of immortality may be his neatest trick. But Smalley's memory will fade. Will others step forward and push nanoscience ahead as gracefully as he did? Or will October be the month nanotechnology marks the anniversaries of its two most important events: the month Rick Smalley won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry and the month nanotechnology lost Rick Smalley.



The World According to Rick


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