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Buckyball Lab Named A Chemical Landmark

ACS News: Rice University recognized as the discovery site of carbon fullerenes

by Ann M. Thayer
October 13, 2010

Credit: 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.
Credit: 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.

The 1985 discovery of fullerenes was honored by the American Chemical Society as its 67th National Historic Chemical Landmark at a ceremony on Oct. 11. The research, at Rice University in Houston, sparked the nanotechnology boom.

The research was conducted in the lab of chemistry and physics professor Richard E. Smalley, who passed away in 2005. Members of the original research team who worked with him on the discovery gathered for the chemical landmarks ceremony.

The work began as an attempt to understand the formation of carbon molecules in interstellar dust. Rice professor Robert F. Curl and Sir Harold W. Kroto, who was then at the University of Sussex in the U.K., convinced Smalley to use his laser-supersonic cluster beam apparatus to vaporize and condense carbon.

What they found—with the help of graduate students James R. Heath, 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 research expanded the number of known carbon allotropes and led subsequently to the discovery and manufacture of carbon nanotubes. In 1996, Smalley, Kroto, and Curl were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for their discovery of fullerenes.

"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. Smalley was instrumental in recruiting science faculty and in establishing what is now the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science & Technology at Rice.

"Many of the great scientists that we have here today are here because of what this discovery has made possible across so many fields far beyond the field of chemistry," Leebron continued. "We at Rice are very, very proud that we are the home of the buckyball and the launch of the incredible field of nanotechnology."

The 25th anniversary of the buckyball discovery and landmark award concludes a year-long celebration at Rice called the "Year of the Nano." Extensive outreach activities, events, and symposia were among the events, including a four-day conference held on Oct 11-14 featuring the Nobel Laureates and other leaders in nanoscience and technology.



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