Richard Smalley was a chemist and Nobel Prize Laureate who discovered a new class of molecules, the fullerenes, in 1985. The remarkable discovery changed the world of chemistry and physics for decades to come, and it led to a new realm of research opportunities and possibilities. Fullerenes are a type of carbon-based molecules that are made up of 60 or more carbon atoms. They are named after the geodesic domes designed by the iconic inventor and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, earning them the moniker “Buckyballs” or “Buckytubes”.

Former Contributions To Science 

Richard Smalley had contributed to the field of chemistry long before his groundbreaking discovery of fullerenes. He obtained both his master’s and Ph.D. in Chemistry from Rice University, where he completed research on diamond cluster size control and photoemission spectra of isonitrile compounds. He was the recipient of the Robert A. Welch Award in 1971 and 1972, as well as the Saul Winstein Award of the American Chemical Society in 1974. Afterwards, he joined the faculty of Rice University and developed research programs in chemical dynamics, molecular physics, and biochemistry.

The Discovery of Fullerenes

In 1985, Richard and his team at Rice University made a historical discovery that changed the landscape of science forever. This breakthrough was the synthesis of a new class of molecules known as the fullerenes. Fullerenes are essentially cage-like molecules, made up of 60 or more carbon atoms. The first member of this family of molecules, which was named buckminsterfullerene or “buckyballs” in honor of R. Buckminster Fuller, is composed of 60 carbon atoms and has a spheroidal shape.

The Discovery, Its Implications and Its Impact 

The discovery of fullerenes, though initially met with skepticism from the scientific community, has since been embraced. Fullerenes are especially important because they are the first naturally occurring form of carbon after diamond and graphite that has solid-state properties. As such, they can be used in applications such as conductors, devices, and skincare products.

Fullerenes have also been incorporated into nanotechnological research and development, which has led to advances in the fields of nanophotonics, nanoelectronics, and nanomedicine. They have been found to exhibit superconductive capabilities and a host of other applications, enabling them to be used for a variety of purposes, from skincare to aerospace engineering.

Fullerenes even have potential uses in pharmaceuticals and drug development, where they could play a role in controlling delivery of drugs and providing safer alternatives to existing treatments. Thanks to the work of Richard Smalley and his colleagues, the potential of this new type of molecule is being gradually revealed.

The Supportive Community of Scientists 

Richard and his colleagues at Rice University were not the only ones who pursued the synthesis and understanding of fullerenes in the years following the discovery. The research was furthered by a wide range of scientists who were equally eager to uncover the secrets of these mysterious molecules and to uncover the possibilities for their use.

As more people began to delve into fullerene research, the number of publications related to the subject grew significantly. This drew the interest of several international laboratories and organizations, many of which chose to fund various research projects to understand the nature of the new molecules and to optimize their applications for the purposes of energy conversion, medicine, and general scientific knowledge.

The Nobel Prize for Chemistry 

In 1996, Richard Smalley, along with the Rice University professor Robert Curl Jr. and the British chemist Sir Harold Kroto, was recognised for his work on fullerenes and bestowed with the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. The three scientists were acknowledged for their research that had revealed the molecular structure and properties of the “buckyballs”.

The Lancet Issue 

Following their Nobel Prize win, Smalley and Curl joined forces with the esteemed British university Oxford to launch The Lancet Issue, a publication which focused on the emerging scientific opportunities in the field of nanoscience and technology with special attention to the potential applications of fullerenes.

Patents And Keynote Awards 

Richard Smalley was also actively involved in the patent process surrounding fullerenes, filing the patent “Organic synthesis of endohedral metallofullerenes” in 1991. He was later awarded the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Memorial Award by the Los Alamos National Laboratory for his contributions to the development of fullerenes, as well as the H.C. Brown Award in 1998.

The Lasting Legacy of Richard Smalley 

Since Richard Smalley’s death in 2005, his legacy continues to remain in the scientific community. In 2008, the university’s Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology was founded at Rice University, highlighting the increasing importance of nanotechnology in today’s world and the true magnitude of Smalley’s accomplishments.

He has also been honored with the creation of various initiatives in pursuit of continual advances in the field of nanotechnology, such as the Richard Smalley Young Investigator Award and Fullerene Labeled the “Smalley-Curl Institute”. In 2009, his birthday, November 6th, was officially declared as Nanoscience Day to honour and commemorate his life’s work.

Richard Smalley’s discovery of fullerenes revolutionized the scientific world and sparked enthusiasm among scientists towards nanoscale research and development. As a result, nanomedicine, nanoelectronics, and other similar fields have advanced exponentially, and the world is only beginning to comprehend the potential of this remarkable group of molecules. Richard Smalley’s legacy and the impact of his discovery will remain in the scientific community for years to come.