It was the kind of discovery that only happens in chemistry once every few decades-if you’re very lucky. In 1985, Richard E. Smalley and several collaborators at Rice University made a form of carbon never seen before. The arrangement of carbon atoms in each molecule resembled a tiny geodesic dome, so the researchers called the material “buckminsterfullerene” after the architect who had popularized the shape. With its neatly structured network of atoms, the “buckyball” quickly became the poster molecule for nanotechnology. Then in the early 1990s, researchers made another startling discovery: you could also make hollow tubes out of the same carbon structure. Carbon nanotubes had many times the strength of steel, the electrical conductivity of copper, and were the diameter of a DNA molecule. They were, in short, perfect materials for building and wiring the nano world.More than a decade after his initial discovery, Smalley’s enthusiasm for the new materials shows no sign of waning. Last year he co-founded a company, Carbon Nanotechnologies, to make the commercial quantities of nanotubes that will enable other labs to push the technology forward, and to develop applications. But his continuing excitement for fullerenes (as the general category of these carbon-based molecules is known) goes far beyond anticipation of future technological uses. Trained as a spectroscopist, Smalley, a chemistry professor at Rice since 1976, is fascinated by the molecules themselves. In accepting the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry for fullerenes research, Smalley called the discovery “one of the most spiritual experiences that any of us in the original team of [researchers] have ever experienced.”
The $33 million Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, which Smalley established in 1995 and now directs, sits at the edge of the Rice campus in Houston as a testimonial to the potential of fullerenes. The number of research groups at the nanotech center is growing so fast that Smalley’s own lab has moved next door to the third floor of Rice’s Space Science Center. Technology Review deputy editor David Rotman recently visited Smalley to ask about the future of nanotech and hear why the Nobel Prize winner thinks nanotubes are so special.
TR: How has the increased attention and funding, such as President Clinton’s $495 million nanotech initiative for 2001, affected the field of nanotechnology?
SMALLEY: To have the president talk about it has emboldened scientists and technologists to start to put “nano” in their proposals. They know what the new buzzword is. But more impressive to me has been how this idea has caught hold with those out there doing science. And I don’t get the feeling that it’s artificial posturing. The core disciplines of chemistry and physics have warmed to this idea. Part of that has been a response to the funding. But I think there really is a general appreciation that there really is something here. The chemistry and physics have now advanced to the point that you can think of, and in some cases actually build and do experiments on, [nano] structures of sufficient complexity that something new happens.
TR: Is there a danger that, like many other buzzwords, “nanotechnology” will begin to lose its real meaning?
SMALLEY: I like the word “nanotechnology.” I like it because the prefix “nano” guarantees it will be fundamental science for decades; the “technology” says it is engineering, something you’re involved in not just because you’re interested in how nature works but because it will produce something that has a broad impact. When you put those two things together in one word, there’s a tension. As our disciplines, particularly chemistry and physics, have matured, we’re now dealing with things at a very fundamental level that do have a practical importance.