Science • Richard E. Smalley

His discovery of the buckyball won him the Nobel prizeand the admiration of researchers everywhere.

September 1997By Comments

RICHARD E. SMALLEY’S FRIENDS all talk about his “science fiction speech.” “Rick is coming to my conference this fall,” I heard a prominent chemist tell a group of colleagues, “and I’m trying to get him to give his science fiction speech.” Everyone nodded approvingly. Even those who had heard it before wanted to hear it again. Smalley, a professor of chemistry and physics at Rice University who won the Nobel prize for chemistry in 1996, also gives the speech at various events for Rice alumni and donors, and he is a popular speaker at meetings of civic clubs and other worthy groups. His freshman chemistry students have heard the speech too. Smalley, who is 54, is an appealing, rather elegant man with the timbre and diction of an actor, but while his rhetorical gifts certainly contribute to the effectiveness of the speech, its true power comes from his loving, almost spiritual regard for his subject. That subject is nanotubes, and in the science fiction speech, Smalley muses on the wonders we can barely imagine today that nanotubes may bring us in the futurewonders such as an elevator to outer space.

Nanotubes, Smalley says, are not just the strongest material ever discovered; they are the strongest there ever can be. They are one hundred times stronger than steel but weigh only one-sixth as much. Sketching on an overhead projector as he gives the speech, Smalley shows a satellite orbiting in space with a long cable connecting it to Earth. At present no such cable could exist because it would need to be so long that it would break under its own weight. But it might not if it were made of nanotubes. A nanotube rope around a pulley in synchronous orbit around Earth could be used to haul various chemicals into space at a fraction of the cost of blasting them up there by rocket, and it could bring back a whole host of products, like certain medicines, that would be made more efficiently in the sterile vacuum of outer space. But that’s not all. Nanotubes are hollow, and a single tube is so tiny that it could be used as a syringe to inject medicine into a single cell. Nanotubes also conduct electricity. Because of their strength and light weight, they could replace metal in electric cables. Because of their size, they could be used in the circuitry of powerful but minuscule computers. And the list goes on. Smalley envisions ways that nanotubes will transform everything from batteries to buildings.

Smalley won the Nobel prize for his part in discovering the buckyball, an arrangement of sixty carbon atoms bound together in hexagons and pentagons that are themselves bound together. Depending on which comparison one prefers, the resulting molecule looks like either a soccer ball or a geodesic dome, the structure made popular by the late Buckminster Fuller (thus the name “buckyball”). Although Smalley won the Nobel only last year, he made his discovery twelve years ago, in 1985. Since then he has continued to work with fullerenes, carbon molecules similar in structure to the buckyball. All around the world, particularly in Europe and Japan, other scientists have begun research in this area; buckyballs inspired a whole new field of study. But Smalley, who was present at the creation, is once again breaking new ground. On July 26 of last year, in a paper he published in the journal Science titled “Crystalline Ropes of Metallic Carbon Nanotubes,” Smalley revealed that he and a team of collaborators had found a way to prevent one side of the buckyball from closing. When a nickel or cobalt atom was introduced into the process that normally produced buckyballs, rings of carbon atoms bound together as hexagons formed long, hollow tubes that could, by various manipulations, be kept open-ended to grow longer or allowed to close. And these tubes, consisting of only carbon atoms, had properties that one normally associates with metals such as gold, copper, or silver. The most important property the nanotube molecules shared with metal was that they conducted electricity. There are other conducting non-metalscertain cells in our nervous system, for examplebut these biological molecules are “wet” and conduct electricity inefficiently. For a century scientists had been searching for a “dry” conducting molecule, one that was as efficient as a metal and could be used in the kinds of practical applications Smalley describes. And here it was, in a laboratory on the campus of Rice University.

Richard Smalley grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where he was, in his own words, “an indifferent student.” While many senior biographies in the 1961 Southwest High School yearbook are several paragraphs long, his consists of four words: “Honor roll two semesters.” But Smalley fell under the spell of an inspiring chemistry teacher and headed off to tiny Hope College in Michigan intent on majoring in chemistry. His intellectual abilities blossomed there, and eventually he earned a doctorate from Princeton University. After postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago, he hired on at Rice in 1976, and he has been there ever since.

Perhaps because of his early lack of interest in school, he is today a patient and lucid explainer of the complicated chemistry that is his life’s work. And he still lectures to freshman chemistry classes even though his experience and his fame would have allowed him to relieve himself of that long ago. He likes to know how things work and to explain how things work, and like all great intellects, he knows that the simplest, clearest explanation is the best. But his curiosity continues because the answers we do know lead always to the answers we don’t. It is easy to steer him in conversation to ruminations on life and the universe and what it all may mean. “The buckyball, with sixty carbon atoms, is the most symmetrical form the carbon atom can take,” he told me. “Carbon in its nature has a genius for assembling into buckyballs. The perfect nanotubethat is, the nanotube that the carbon atom naturally wants to make and makes most oftenis exactly large enough that one buckyball can roll right down the center. And nanotubes are the perfect molecular conductor. And it so happens that we can make a tube of boron nitride that fits exactly around a carbon nanotube and is the perfect insulator. It’s just as though God said, Someday you’re going to find this perfect conductor, and when you do, you’re going to need to insulate it, and so here’s that too.’”

Because Smalley mentioned God, I asked him if he is religious, and he replied that he had lost interest in church as a teenager. “But now,” he said, “I know that except for carbon there would be no life in the universe. Except for this one atom there would be no life. Well, why? When you think about it, it does get spooky. Encountering these molecules are spiritual experiences similar to what I remember in church as a child, only these are more serious. This is not an experience based on faith, but on reality.”

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