Twenty-five years ago in a lab right down the hall from my office at Rice University
a serendipitous discovery was made that shook the worlds of chemistry and physics. A team of five researchers was trying to recreate conditions in interstellar space so they could study unstable molecules floating around up there and instead found something totally unexpected. The experiment involved atomizing a disc of graphite, then measuring the mass of the molecules that form when the atoms cool and recombine into different forms. The resultant mass spectrometry signal, instead of showing various small-chain fragments of organic molecules, showed a huge peak at mass 720 and very little else. The implications were that a single form of carbon, heretofore unknown, was energetically favored over most other combinations, including the species the team expected to find. After puzzling over how 60 carbon atoms (mass 12 x 60 atoms = 720 total mass) could arrange themselves in a very stable form, they proposed an elegant solution: a hollow shape made of interconnected hexagons and pentagons that resembles a nanoscopic soccer ball. They dubbed the C60 molecule buckminsterfullerene
, as the little molecules resemble Lilliputian versions of American futurist and engineer R. Buckminster Fuller’s enormous geodesic architectural domes. The discovery of C60 buckminsterfullerene, or buckyball
for short, garnered the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for Richard Smalley, Robert Curl and Harry Kroto, with special recognition going to graduate students James Heath and Sean O’Brien, who assisted with the experiments.
Since the buckyball discovery other types of carbon-based nanostructured materials have been found. The most significant of these is the family of hollow, tubular structures known as carbon nanotubes, which are essentially elongated buckyballs. Collectively, buckyballs, carbon nanotubes and related molecules are referred to as fullerenes. Nanotubes are perhaps even more significant from an application standpoint than their buckyball cousins. Stronger than steel and able to leap over tall buildings in a single bound (OK that last one not so much), nanotubes are now being investigated for use in flat panel displays, anti-static fabrics, medical devices, and many other technologies.
Nanotechnology Research at Rice University
The discovery of the buckyball has been credited with ushering in a new era of science and technology research into all types of nanomaterials. It’s fair to say that the buckyball and the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry also transformed Rice University. Smalley used his newfound status as a Nobel Laureate to get a new building built on campus (and another renovated when he found “his” building unsuitable), build a nanotube production facility to produce materials for nanotech research, recruit bright young faculty members and even land a major federally-funded research center
. He was also pivotal in championing the National Nanotechnology Initiative
at the federal level. Today Rice has over 100 faculty members researching nanotechnology in areas as diverse as energy, medicine, smart materials, sensors, environmental remediation, and many others. Despite spanning every academic division across the university, nanotechnology researchers at Rice can all come together in their home in the Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Engineering
. The Smalley Institute, renamed for Smalley after his death in 2005, is credited with being the first academic nanotechnology institute in the world. It has been instrumental in developing cross-cutting research programs in aerospace, energy and materials.
2010: The Year of Nano
To commemorate the 25th anniversary of the discovery of the buckyball, the Smalley Institute declared 2010 to be the Year of Nano
. Among the year’s celebrations are a gala, commissioned buckyball symphony, Congressional briefing and reception, Civic Science public lecture, semester-long continuing education public course and technical symposium.
For me, the year’s events begin in earnest this week with a reception and Congressional briefing in Washington, DC. The purpose of these events is to connect with Congressional and agency leaders who have supported Rice in the past and build strong support for nanotechnology research in the future for all U.S. researchers. The real party begins on 10/10/10 with a gala in downtown Houston and a technical research symposium.
The Buckyball Discovery Conference
is bringing to Rice the world’s leading carbon nanotechnology researchers, including the surviving members of the Nobel Prize team, to honor the original discovery as well as the 25 years of research that ensued. As part of that symposium I am organizing a session on environmental, health and safety impacts of nanomaterials with an emphasis on occupational health. (You didn’t think this post was going to end without a reference to risk, did you?) I’ll reveal the lineup in a future post but suffice it to say it will include a diverse group of experts from government, industry and academia. But if you follow what I do in my day job at the International Council on Nanotechnology
, you already knew it would.
Whether you’re a nanotechnology fan, skeptic or critic, there is no denying that the discovery of C60 buckminsterfullerene was of immense historical significance. Google even got into the fun when it replaced its normal homepage icon with a Google buckyball doodle
. It seems only fitting that Rice University and the Smalley Institute pay homage to its discovery, both to honor the memory of nanotechnology’s first and perhaps greatest champion and to highlight the amazing research that resulted directly or indirectly from that one outsized mass spectrometry peak 25 years ago.