96 Nobel Prize

The 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Adapted from the New York Times October 10, 1996

The 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry has been awarded to Dr. Richard Smalley and Dr. Robert Curl, Jr. of Rice University (Houston) and Sir Harold Kroto of the University of Sussex (England) for "founding an important branch of chemistry based on molecules shaped like soccer balls."

Their discovery was of a previously unknown allotrope of carbon consisting of 60 carbon atoms linked in the form of a soccer ball. This molecule and others similar to it were called "fullerenes" or "buckyballs" as shorthand labels for their resemblance to the architectural domes designed by R. Buckminster Fuller. The longhand name for the C60 molecule is "buckminsterfullerene".

Since the discovery in 1985, over 5000 variants of the buckyball have been synthesized by chemists. These include elongated spheroids, sheets of carbon, and microscopic tubes including tubes within tubes of diameter only a billionth of a meter across.

At first, the discovery was controversial and not widely believed. Soon they became only laboratory curiosities because only microquantities of the substance could be produced. But in 1990, scientiests at the University of Arizona and at the Max Planck Institute in Heidelberg came upon a way to make fullerenes by the pound. Since then, research has exploded worldwide on fullerenes and its derivatives.

At Carnegie Mellon, members of both the Chemistry Department and the Physics Department are engaged in research involving buckyballs.