Robert F. Curl Jr., whose work helped launch the field of carbon nanomaterials, died July 3 at the age of 88. Curl was best known for his contribution to the discovery of C60 with Harold W. Kroto and Richard E. Smalley. The three received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for the work.
Curl, Kroto, and Smalley were interested in using spectroscopy to study the chemical structure of carbon-based materials in interstellar dust. In a series of experiments conducted in 1985 at Rice University, Curl and his collaborators — with the help of graduate students James R. Heath, Sean O’Brien, and Yuan Liu — found an unexpectedly stable nanoparticle composed of 60 carbons. The chemists discovered that the stability of this new molecule derived from a highly symmetric bonding pattern that reminded them of the geodesic domes designed by architect Richard Buckminster Fuller. The researchers called this molecule buckminsterfullerene or “buckyball.”
Colleagues describe Curl as a meticulous, thoughtful, and endlessly curious scientist. “Bob was generally fairly quiet, but his questions at any seminar were deep. You couldn’t pull anything past him,” says James Tour, an organic chemist at Rice University.
Heath, now the president of the Institute for Systems Biology, says the discovery of C60 had a profound impact on the nascent field of nanotechnology by showing how the size and shape of carbon-based materials affects their properties. But he says Curl remained unchanged by the acclaim it earned him. “He was delighted to have it all happen, but then he just went right back to work,” Heath says. “His heart was in the basement with his lasers.” Curl continued to think of himself as a molecular spectroscopist who sought out difficult problems, Heath says.
Curl was born in Alice, Texas in 1933. After finishing an undergraduate degree in chemistry at what is now Rice University, Curl pursued his doctorate at the University of California, Berkeley, studying physical chemistry with Kenneth Pitzer. After a short postdoctoral appointment at Harvard University, Curl returned to Rice as a professor in 1958, spending the rest of his career there.
In addition to the Nobel Prize, Curl won many awards in recognition of his contributions to chemistry, including the Centenary Medal from the Royal Society of Chemistry and the International Prize for New Materials from the American Physical Society, and he was named a fellow of the National Academy of Sciences.
This story was updated on July 9, 2022, to clarify James R. Heath’s role at the Institute for Systems Biology. He is president of the institute.