Richard Smalley, 62; Nobelist, ‘Father of Nanotechnology’

Times Staff Writer

Richard Smalley, the Nobel Prize-winning chemist who was the co-creator of the miniature spheres of carbon called buckyballs and who is widely considered the father of nanotechnology, died Friday at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston.

Smalley, 62, had battled leukemia for several years, said a spokesman for Rice University, where he spent virtually all of his working life.

The chemist used the fame generated by the creation of the 60-carbon spheres to campaign widely for the development of nanotechnology, which would allow scientists to produce molecule-sized working machines to accomplish a variety of previously unimaginable tasks.

“These little nanothings, and the technology that assembles and manipulates them -- nanotechnology -- will revolutionize our industries and our lives,” he told the U.S. House of Representatives in 1999 while arguing for the creation of the National Nanotechnology Initiative to support the research.


“Rick overwhelmingly carried the day,” said Caltech chemist James Heath, a former student of Smalley’s. “He sat there in front of Congress with no hair, as a result of the chemotherapy, and talked about the promise of nanotechnology for cancer and other diseases and how it would pay off for his children. It was absolutely riveting.”

Federal spending for the initiative amounted to more than $1 billion this fiscal year.

Added William Barnett, a former chairman of the Rice board of trustees: “I think of Rick as the father of nanotechnology in the sense that, better than anyone else, he articulated the vision of its future and how it would impact the world. And he did so in a kind of universal language which was understandable and inspiring to everyone.”

Smalley’s seminal work grew out of his studies in the 1970s using the then-new tunable dye lasers to analyze the structures of simple molecules. Because the analysis was very difficult with rapidly spinning molecules at room temperature, the researchers used a technique called supersonic jet expansion to cool them, slowing or stopping the rotation.

In the technique, which is a sophisticated version of the method used to cool Freon in air conditioners, a gas was allowed to expand at high speed into a near-vacuum, producing a cooling effect and slowing the molecular rotations to allow laser analysis.

Ultimately the team, which included Rice chemist Robert F. Curl Jr., discovered that it could use pulses from a second layer to vaporize solids at the intake of the expansion chamber, allowing, Smalley said, “for the first time the atoms of any element in the periodic table to be produced cold in a supersonic beam.”

When they tried the technique with carbon in 1985, the results were surprising: They observed a variety of clusters with even numbers of carbon atoms. Most abundant were those with 60 atoms.

After much time spent trying to decipher the structure of the clusters, Smalley was struck with inspiration one evening while huddled over his kitchen table. He concluded that the molecules must look like a soccer ball, with 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons formed into a sphere.

Because the structure reminded him of the geodesic domes designed by architect Buckminster Fuller, he christened the molecules buckminsterfullerene, which got shortened in everyday speech to buckyballs.

The structure was a surprise to chemists, who had previously seen pure carbon only in the form of graphite and diamond. But the structure presented many opportunities.

Because the molecules were round and thus moved easily past one another, they proved to be effective lubricants. Because they were hollow, they could store and carry other molecules and atoms, particularly metal atoms, protecting them from the environment.

In 1991, however, researchers at NEC Corp. in Japan discovered a much more useful fullerene, in which the carbon atoms were arranged in the form of hollow tubes, called carbon nanotubes.

In addition to stimulating a massive amount of work on nanotechnology at Rice and playing a key role in the creation of the nanotechnology initiative, Smalley helped found Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. in 2000 and became its chairman.

“Now our motto is, ‘If it ain’t tubes, we don’t do it,’ ” he wrote in an autobiography prepared for the Nobel Foundation.

His most ambitious endeavor, called the “Armchair Quantum Wire” project, was begun in April with $11 million in NASA funding. Its goal is to use nanotubes in wiring to conduct electricity.

The proposed wire, he said in May, will be “a continuous cable of buckytubes that we expect will conduct electricity 10 times better than copper yet have only one-sixth the weight, a zero coefficient of thermal expansion and a tensile strength greater than steel. If we succeed, we’ll be able to rewire the world ... permitting a vast increase in the capacity of the nation’s electrical grid.”

Richard Errett Smalley was born in Akron, Ohio, on June 6, 1943, the youngest of four children. He spent most of his childhood in Kansas City, Mo., where his maternal grandfather was a wealthy furniture manufacturer.

Smalley gained an interest in science from his mother, who finally earned her bachelor’s degree while he was in his teens. But he was an indifferent student.

“I went to bed at night praying for a thermonuclear war, so I wouldn’t have to turn in my homework,” he said later.

That changed with the launch of Sputnik.

“I set up a private study in the partly furnished, unheated attic of our home and began to spend long hours in solitude studying and reading (and smoking cigarettes),” he wrote. “That happened to be the year when I began to study chemistry for the first time.”

His sister Linda, a year older, was in the same class, and that sparked a fierce competition. By the end of the year, they had the top two grades in the course.

“It was an exhilarating experience for me and still ranks as the single most important turning point in my life,” he said.

Smalley spent two years at Hope College in Holland, Mich., before enrolling at the University of Michigan, where he studied chemistry. When he graduated in 1965, he entered the chemical industry for a while “to live a little in the ‘real’ world.”

In May 1968, he married Judith Grace Sampieri, a secretary at Shell, where he worked. That fall, as the Vietnam War raged, he was notified that he would soon be drafted, but a week later, Judith told him she was pregnant, a status that got him reclassified.

In 1969, he enrolled at Princeton, near his wife’s family. After he received his doctorate, they moved to Chicago in 1973. He spent three years as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Chicago before joining the staff at Rice, where he remained for the rest of his life.

In 1996, he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry, along with Curl and Harold Kroto of Britain, for their discovery of fullerenes.

Smalley was still teaching undergraduate chemistry at the time, a reflection of his strong commitment to the classroom and to his students.

“Rick could focus so completely on his goals, and he could inspire his students and his colleagues to a similar focus,” said biochemist Kathleen Matthews, dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences at Rice.

“He brought both passion and intellect to his work, and he displayed a degree of dedication and engagement that could motivate others to new levels of achievement.”

Smalley is survived by his fourth wife, the former Deborah Sheffield; a son, Chad, from his marriage to Sampieri; another son, Preston, from his third marriage, to the former JoNell M.Chauvin; stepdaughters Eva and Allison; a brother, Clayton; two sisters, Linda and Mary Jill; and a granddaughter, Bridget.