Robert Curl, co-winner of the Nobel Prize for the discovery of the “buckyball”, dies at 88

More than 11 days at the end of summer 1985, a group of scientists and graduate students gathered at Rice University in Houston to use a powerful laser to vaporize carbon and cool atoms to near absolute zero. The hunt targeted original molecular structures then unknown on earth but detected in deep space.

Rice chemistry professor Robert F. Curl Jr. and others noticed surprise readings on the spectrometer: evidence of 60 carbon atoms bonding, possibly in a hollow football-shaped cluster. Dr. Curl carefully reviewed the results.

Everything has been checked, concluded Dr. Curl. Suddenly, new frontiers in physical chemistry and nanotechnologies have been opened up. They named the discovery after the geodesic domes (think Epcot) of architect and futurist R. Buckminster Fuller: buckminsterfullerenes, or buckyballs for short.

Dr Curl and two colleagues, Richard Smalley de Rice and Harry Kroto of the University of Sussex in England, shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996. And buckyballs have become famous as a kind of Swiss army knife of the molecular field – with potential applications ranging from ships for hydrogen fuel storage to painted solar panels to heavy duty shielding. It was also adopted as the name of a magnetic desk toy.

Dr. Curl died on July 3 in Houston at the age of 88 after a six-decade career at Rice, the university said in a statement. statement. No cause was given.

“Bob was our insurance policy,” said James Heath, president of the Institute of Systems Biology in Seattle and one of the graduate students involved in the 1985 experiments. “We were all excited, but he checked every detail before we could announce anything. He made sure that what looked interesting wasn’t really boring.

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Robert Floyd Curl Jr. was born in Alice, Texas on August 23, 1933, the son of a Methodist minister whose job brought the family to hopscotch in Texas. His father also helped establish the Methodist Hospital in San Antonio.

When Mr. Curl was 9 years old, his parents bought him a chemistry kit for Christmas. “Within a week, I had decided to become a chemist,” he wrote in a autobiographical sketch for the Nobel Foundation.

There were no chemistry classes at her elementary school in Texas. He fumbled around on his own, making things that sizzled and oozed and exploded. One of his high school teachers gave him special science projects to keep up with his growing interests.

After graduating in 1954 from what was then the Rice Institute, he earned a doctorate in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley in 1957 and went to Harvard University for postdoctoral work on bonds. molecular. He then joined the Rice faculty, eventually chairing the chemistry department. He held the title of professor emeritus after his retirement in 2008, at age 74.

As a young assistant professor, Dr. Curl began experimenting with semiconductors using a laser and vacuum device in Smalley’s lab. Dr Curl then suggested his friend Kroto come over from Britain to use the lab for his work, attempting to recreate unusual carbon chains identified by radio astronomy in interstellar clouds and red giants, old stars with relatively low surface temperatures.

That’s how “we got into carbon trading,” Dr. Curl recalled in a 2016 Rice News interview.

The concept of carbon organizing itself into molecular structures, such as spheres or tubes, has been part of scientific research and theories for decades. This was not proven until the unexpected findings of Rice’s experiments. The initial work was published in Nature in a manuscript, “C60 Buckminsterfullerene.” (C60 refers to the 60 carbon atoms arranged in 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons.)

At the time, it was thought that carbon only existed in three forms: soot or coal, graphite and diamond.

“Nobody had ever heard of round carbon before,” Heath said.

He has also charted a new course for nanotechnology, creating innovative materials and devices at a quasi-atomic scale. The strength and stability of buckyballs – in the form of 60+ atoms – have offered dozens of possible uses due to their shape and electronic bonding properties.

Buckyballs have found applications in ultra-small light-emitting diodes and solar cells. Other research goes in several directions: medical uses such as antioxidants by siphoning off free radicals; blend with polymers for possible paint that recovers solar energy and generates electricity; as potential lubricants due to their round shape, or in ultra-thin protective coatings almost as hard as diamonds.

The discovery of the buckyball also played a key role in the development of nanotubes, essentially graphite coiled into atomic-level cylinders, used as super-efficient pathways for electricity and heat exchange.

Since 1985, buckyball-shaped carbon molecules have been found in nature in some ancient geological formations, possibly delivered by meteors, and in soot flames. “Think about it the next time you light a candle,” said the presentation speech for the Nobel Prize by Lennart Eberson of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

These silkworms were given a diet of nanotubes. They produced super silk.

In 2015, Rice named the Smalley-Curl Institute after the two Nobel laureates. Among his fellow Nobel laureates, Smalley died in 2005 and Kroto in 2016.

In recent years, Dr. Curl has worked with economists at Rice to study topics such as energy consumption and the impact of automation on the US economy.

Survivors include his 66-year-old wife, former Jonel Whipple from Houston; two sons, Michael Curl of Houston and David Curl of Fort Worth; and three grandchildren.

“Reporters asked us, ‘Tell us how you made this great discovery,'” Dr Curl Told the Houston Chronicle in 2008. “Well, it was a fluke. The only credit you can claim is for not ignoring your lucky break.

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