Smalley, Richard Errett

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Author: Wade Adams
Date: 2008
Complete Dictionary of Scientific Biography
Publisher: Charles Scribner's Sons
Document Type: Biography
Pages: 4
Content Level: (Level 5)

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(b. Akron, Ohio, 6 June 1943; d. Houston, Texas, 28 October 2005), chemistry, nanotechnology, fullerenes.

Smalley was widely known as one of the three major influences in the beginning of the nanotechnology revolution. He was equally well known in the United States for his advocacy for strong science support at the federal level, for exciting children toward a career in science, and for awakening the world to impending energy problems. In Page 473  |  Top of Articleonly forty short years he created several fields of science, and he won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for the discovery of Carbon-60, identifying a new form of carbon, popularly known as “buckyballs.”

Early Life and Career Smalley, the youngest of four children of Frank Dudley Smalley Jr. and Esther Virginia Rhoads, was born into an upper-middle-class family that valued both education and mechanical and electrical handiwork. His interest in science began in his early teens with his mother showing him the ideas and beauty of nature with a microscope, but the impetus for his career in science came from the launch of Sputnik in 1957. After his junior year in high school, he knew he could be a serious student of science, and he began his love for chemistry, exemplified by his drawing the complete periodic table on the rafters of his attic in Kansas City, Missouri, where he set up his own private study for reading and reflection.

He began his academic career at Hope College in Holland, Michigan, and later transferred to the University of Michigan, where he earned a BSc in chemistry in 1965. Deciding to take time to work in the real world, he joined Shell Chemical Company in Woodbury, New Jersey, as a chemist in the quality control laboratory for the polypropylene plant. Smalley learned about industrial-scale processes and the critical importance of efficient catalysts in polymerization (which would prove useful much later in life when he began to scale-up carbon nanotube synthesis), and working with chemical engineers, he learned that chemists can do anything. After two years, he transferred to the Plastics Technical Center, where he developed analytical methods for studying the olefins. He married Judith Grace Sampieri in 1968 and their son, Chad Richard Smalley, was born in 1969.

Smalley moved his family to Princeton and began graduate studies at Princeton University in the fall of 1969. He joined the new research group of assistant professor Elliott Bernstein and began work on the chemical physics of condensed phase and molecular systems, using optical and microwave spectroscopy, a field stimulating Smalley’s theoretical and experimental curiosities. Although not particularly fruitful, his study of sym-triazine gave him the tools and insight he needed for future studies. He began preparations for a postdoctoral fellowship in Chicago, and while preparing for his final dissertation defense, he seized on the idea of using supersonic expansion to cool molecules in order to slow their rotations, and to study the now simplified single-rotational-state molecules by laser spectroscopy. The experiment could be performed at the University of Chicago, and so, after receiving his PhD degree from Princeton University in 1973, he moved to Chicago.

Supersonic Beam Laser Spectroscopy During his postdoctoral period with Lennard Wharton and Donald Levy at the University of Chicago, Smalley pioneered what has become one of the most powerful techniques in chemical physics, supersonic beam laser spectroscopy. The team achieved record low temperatures through clever improvements and soon could study polyatomic molecules, and then medium-sized molecules such as benzene, and finally van der Waals complexes and metal atom–rare earth gas complexes. In 1976 Smalley accepted an assistant professor position at Rice University in Houston, Texas, where he was eager to work with Robert Curl, a laser spectroscopist. Smalley immediately began building an elegant apparatus, modified to use pulsed ultraviolet dye lasers to look at even larger molecules. That was followed by a larger system to use pulsed nozzles for the cooling jet, synchronized with pulsed visible and ultraviolet lasers to study large molecules and clusters. Following his powerful pattern of building even larger machines with new capabilities, he continued to open up new fields of chemical physics, and his next generation machine used a pulsed laser to vaporize any material into the cold jet—opening up the entire periodic table to form clusters of controllable nanometer size of any element, and creating the science of metal and semiconductor cluster beams.

The Discovery of Fullerenes Building a version of his apparatus for the Exxon laboratories, Smalley began a collaboration with Andrew Kaldor that led the Exxon group to study carbon clusters, and in 1983 they noted some strange, even-numbered clusters of carbon atoms, but did not follow up on their interpretation. In the summer of 1985, the British chemist Harold Kroto from Sussex University (later Sir Harold Kroto) visited Rice to perform experiments with Smalley’s and Curl’s research groups on carbon long-chain molecules predicted to have been formed in interstellar clouds from carbon-rich stars. Smalley’s apparatus was used to vaporize carbon and, indeed, long-chain carbons were observed, along with the even-numbered carbon clusters previously noted by Kaldor. The high abundance of the C-60 cluster among clusters from 40 to 80 carbon atoms could only be explained by a stable, closed cage structure comprised of 12 pentagon and 20 hexagon faces, resembling a soccer ball, and named Buckminsterfullerene in honor of the famous architect and his geometrically similar geodesic domes.

Thus was created another new science—fullerenes, which has been recognized as one of the key discoveries leading to the nanotechnology revolution which began in earnest in the 1990s. The “buckyball” described in their two-page paper in Nature—coauthored by James Heath and Sean O’Brien, graduate students on the project—was recognized in 1996 by the award of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Smalley, Curl, and Kroto.

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Richard E. Smalley Prof. Smalley on campus. AP IMAGES Richard E. Smalley Prof. Smalley on campus.AP IMAGES.

Smalley, Curl, and Kroto spent the next several years after the publication of the fullerene paper defending their work and the concepts embodied in the series of fullerenes of varying sizes. Smalley and Curl continued to work closely together as colleagues and collaborators, whereas Kroto returned to England to pursue his own research directions. By 1990 fullerenes could be produced in sufficient quantity to permit unequivocal verification of their chemical existence and their remarkable properties. Smalley then turned toward the “big brother” of the buckyball, the carbon nanotube, which was reported initially by Sumio Iijima in Japan and others in 1991, and which Smalley had predicted from chemical geometrical arguments in the late 1980s. He redirected his research yet again into this new field with great enthusiasm, whereas Curl chose to resume a broader interest in spectroscopy, and by 1995 Smalley had succeeded in developing two efficient synthesis methods for making single-wall carbon nanotubes.

The properties of single-wall carbon nanotubes were predicted by Smalley and his collaborators to exceed any known materials in several respects. With the density of carbon, and a theoretical strength many times that of steel, carbon nanotubes will enable very strong, lightweight structures, and will make cars, trucks, airplanes and spacecraft stronger, yet require less fuel. Nanotubes can be made to be much better conductors of electricity than copper or aluminum, which will enable much more efficient wiring for power cables, motors, and generators. They can also be made to be better semiconductors than silicon, to enable smaller and more powerful computers and electrical and optical devices. Their ability to conduct heat is better than any other material, which will allow smaller radiators and more powerful laptop computers. For these beneficial applications and many other revolutionary implications, such as in medicine, Smalley became the leading advocate for new funding and more extensive research in this particular form of nanotechnology.

Furthering Nanotechnology In addition to being the most widely cited author in nanotechnology in the 1990s, Smalley was recognized as one of the leaders in establishing the U.S. National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI), leading to greatly expanded federal funding, and creating a groundswell of research across the world. Smalley made samples of carbon nanotubes readily available to all researchers, and he founded a company to help promote commercialization. He was the only academic representative invited to the White House for the signing of the law in 2003 that ensured continuation of the NNI funding.

Smalley’s strong advocacy for nanoscience and nano-engineering brought him into conflict with another of nanotechnology’s early advocates, Eric Drexler. Smalley’s objections to Drexler’s ideas of molecular manufacturing and nanobots were raised in very public forums, particularly in Scientific American’s September 2001 issue. Smalley and other nanoscientists (especially Harvard’s George Whitesides) suggested that atoms could not be simply moved around at will to be assembled into nanoscopic machines that resembled larger machines, and that chemical and physical laws dictated more collective approaches to molecular assembly “from the bottom up.” The arguments provided much discussion and spurred research in both technical camps, and after several years the molecular manufacturing ideas were discredited to the extent of moving most of the proponents, including Drexler, into the more scientific nanochemistry mode.

Smalley advanced an extraordinary vision for using nanotechnology to solve the world’s energy problems, including accelerating climate change, using carbon nanotubes to wire an intercontinental electrical grid capable of carrying all the world’s energy needs in the form of electricity, instead of transporting masses of oil, gas, or coal. For the last four years of his life, his research group was dedicated to solving the scientific problems remaining in the manufacture of industrial-scale amounts of pure, metallic-conductivity, single-walled carbon nanotubes. Smalley tirelessly advanced his vision not only to the Page 475  |  Top of Articletechnical community, but also to the political and policy communities, and its capacity to include all the possible forms of renewable energy as well as fossil fuel (cleaned of greenhouse gas emissions) was recognized as unique. After his death, many in the field of energy and nanotechnology continued to advocate and advance his vision.

Smalley’s vision for nanotechnology to transform the practice of medicine was as powerful as his energy vision, and he was the driving force to establish an Alliance for NanoHealth in the Houston, Texas, region. He believed that nanotechnology could enable the detection of disease at its earliest possible stages of only a few errant cells, by simple blood tests, and then analyzing the hundreds of thousands of protein fragments to indicate the presence of problems as they arise in the body. Only by coupling micro and nanotechnology with systems biology can the incredible complexities be managed. This vision continued to be advanced by many researchers in the early 2000s, with the potential to save many lives and to prolong life expectancy.

Honors Smalley was named to the Gene and Norman Hackerman Chair in Chemistry in 1981, and became a university professor (highest rank) in 2002. Realizing the importance of collaborative research, especially in a small university, he was a founder of the Rice Quantum Institute in 1979, and in 1993 he established the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology at Rice, the first organized institute or center for nanotechnology in the world. He was a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He was the recipient of many national and international awards but was proudest of his election as “homecoming queen” by the students of Rice University in 1996. He received eight honorary academic degrees.

Smalley eventually married four times, having a second son Preston Reed Smalley with his third wife, and marrying his fourth wife, Deborah Sheffield Smalley, a science teacher, in June of 2005. Being married to a science teacher expanded his great love for teaching science to everyone he encountered. His passion for learning about nature through science was shared by his fellow Nobelists, and the world is fortunate that Robert Curl and Sir Harry Kroto also continued Smalley’s passion for teaching.

Richard Smalley fought a seven-year battle with leukemia and died at the age of sixty-two in October of 2005. Remembered especially for his Nobel Prize–winning research, he left a legacy of many students and collaborators that he inspired to do meaningful, important work on the toughest problems, for the betterment of all humanity. “Be a Scientist–Save the World,” Smalley’s motto, continues to inspire.


More than three hundred scientific papers, many newspaper and magazine articles, congressional testimony, and lectures have as of 2007 yet to be cataloged. A partial list of publications is available from Rice University (at ) and a complete listing was planned by 2010 (publications continue to appear based on his many collaborations). Video of his energy vision presentation is also included on the Internet site. A collection of Smalley’s extensive laboratory notebooks, original manuscripts, and various pieces of experimental equipment are at the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and an online archive was planned.


With Harold W. Kroto, James R. Heath, Sean C. O’Brien, et al. “C-60—Buckminsterfullerene.” Nature 318 (1985): 162–163.

“Discovering the Fullerenes.” In Chemistry, 1996–2000, edited by Ingmar Grenthe. Nobel Lectures. Singapore: World Scientific, 2003.


Adams, W. Wade, and Ray H. Baughman. “Retrospective: Richard E. Smalley (1943–2005).” Science 310, no. 5756 (2005): 1916.

Aldersey-Williams, Hugh. The Most Beautiful Molecule: The Discovery of the Buckyball. New York: Wiley, 1995.

Baum, Rudy. “Nanotechnology: Drexler and Smalley Make the Case for and against ‘Molecular Assemblers.’” Chemical and Engineering News81, no. 48 (1 December 2003): 37–42. Available from hhtp:// . After publication of this debate Smalley refused to discuss this topic further as a waste of his time, considering the matter to be settled in his favor.

Curl, Robert F. “Obituary: Richard E. Smalley (1943–2005); Chemist and Champion of Nanotechnology.” Nature 438, no. 7071 (2005): 1094.

Dagani, Ron. “Nobel Laureate Richard Smalley Dead at 62.” Chemical and Engineering News 83, no. 45 (2005): 7.

Halford, Bethany. “The World According to Rick.” Chemical and Engineering News 84, no. 41 (2006): 13–19. Includes Web site supplemental information.

Wade Adams

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Gale Document Number: GALE|CX2830906099