A pair of scissors, a legal pad, a late night beer. All ordinary items, but together they helped an extraordinary tool-nanotechnology-take its first steps out of the realm of theory and into practice.
It started with stardust. In 1985, University of Sussex astronomer Harry Kroto teamed up with Rice University chemists Richard Smalley and Robert Curl to study the structure of carbon molecules on the surface of red giant stars. Along with graduate students James Heath and Sean O’Brien, they mimicked star conditions by zapping carbon with lasers and found something unexpected: a high proportion of extremely stable clusters with 60 carbon atoms each. Someone in the group-nobody remembers who-suggested each cluster might be a single molecule shaped like a hollow ball.
The team struggled to build a model, something like two fused geodesic domes. Smalley worked first on a computer but got nowhere. Heath tried making the shape with gumdrops and toothpicks but failed. Smalley resorted to cutting out hexagons from a legal pad, trying to assemble a sphere from them. Still no luck. But after a post-midnight beer, he remembered geodesic domes can contain pentagons as well as hexagons. Finally, success. Twenty hexagons and 12 pentagons made a 60-atom sphere-a carbon soccer ball. The team dubbed it “buckminsterfullerene,” after the polymath architect who created the geodesic dome.
On September 11, a day before they submitted their findings to the journal Nature, O’Brien, Smalley, Curl, Kroto and Heath posed for a photo with a pair of “buckyball” models and a soccer ball. When the paper ran in November, chemists, physicists and materials scientists were intrigued by the newly discovered form of carbon. The field got another big boost in 1991 when NEC researcher Sumio Iijima discovered an important chemical cousin-the first nanotube. Researchers have used these buckytubes to create tiny experimental diodes, metal-filled “nanowires” and even a flat-screen display with a picture as sharp as conventional television’s. The discovery that kicked it all off won Smalley, Curl and Kroto a 1996 Nobel Prize and opened the door to advances in fields ranging from medicine to computing, batteries to building materials.