Robert F. Curl Jr., who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry as one of the discoverers of remarkably simple but totally unexpected carbon molecules known as buckyballs, died July 3 in a Houston retirement home. He was 88.
His death was announced by Rice University, where Dr. Curl was Professor Emeritus of Chemistry.
Buckyballs, with their round, hollow structure, turned chemists’ ideas about the possible shapes of molecules on their head. A flood of scientists began to study them, spurring the burgeoning field of nanotechnology and the dream of building molecular-sized machines.
Before buckyballs, pure carbon was known to exist in only a few configurations: stacked in layers as graphite; arranged in hard, clear diamond crystals; and randomly scrambled in amorphous carbon.
But in 1985, Dr. Curl, along with Richard E. Smalley, a colleague of Rice’s, and Harold W. Kroto, a visiting scientist from the University of Sussex in England, created a new configuration: 60 carbon atoms linked into a molecule similar to an old soccer ball. They also found a larger version made from 70 carbons.
The find was accidental because they were looking for something else.
“You could argue that that wasn’t part of our area of interest,” said James R. Heath, a graduate student of Dr. Smalley, who conducted many of the Buckyball experiments, in an interview.
The chemists named the molecules buckminsterfullerenes after the architect Buckminster Fuller and his geodesic domes. The name was later shortened to fullerenes or buckyballs.
The experiment interested Dr. Kroto for molecules with long carbon chains observed in interstellar space. He hypothesized that the long-chain molecules formed in the atmosphere of carbon-rich red giant stars.
“Harry had studied these both in the lab and with radio telescopes,” said Dr. Heath, now President of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle. “but they were very, very ephemeral. And so you could not get a picture of how they were made or how plentiful they might be.”
At a science conference in 1984, Dr. Kroto on Dr. Curl, an old friend. dr Curl told him about a device made by Dr. Smalley, who used a laser to create an extremely hot vapor that forms clusters. dr Kroto realized that this apparatus could create conditions similar to those in a red giant’s atmosphere.
dr Smalley was less enthusiastic; Vaporizing carbon would be a distraction and would rob the machine of time that could otherwise be used for the semiconductor research he and Dr. tracked curl. dr Smalley was even less enthusiastic after a research group at Exxon in New Jersey reported results from a similar experiment using a similar device.
But dr Smalley eventually agreed to try it, and the three professors, along with Dr. Heath and two graduate students with their work.
They actually discovered the long carbon chains that Dr. wanted to find Kroto.
They also found something else – the buckyballs.
dr Heath said Dr. Curl delivered a healthy dose of skepticism during the 11-day whirlwind of discovery.
“We were all like excited kids,” said Dr. heath “And Bob was like the adult in the room. And he found reasons that we had to go back and test to make sure this was right or that was right. We all didn’t think of Bob as the devil’s advocate – more like an insurance policy. If Bob agreed with you, you were probably right.”
It turns out that the Exxon experiments had also produced small numbers of buckyballs, but these researchers had missed them in their data. With Rice, the scientists realized what they had found.
“When Mother Nature is trying to tell you something, you have to listen,” recalled Dr. Curl in an interview with Rice University in 2016 to mark the 20th anniversary of his Nobel Prize.
while dr Kroto and Dr. Smalley pursued further buckyball research, Dr. Curl soon to other areas of interest. In the 2016 interview, he recalled that in Dr. Smalley’s office and found his colleague filling folders with papers about buckyballs.
“I don’t want to have a full-time job in any field to keep up with the literature,” said Dr. curl “That’s why I gave up that area.”
Not many practical applications have been found for buckyballs, but other related shapes such as nanotubes (rolled-up carbon tubes) and graphene (carbon sheets one atom thick) have shown promise.
In 2010, NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope discovered buckyballs in interstellar space.
In recent years, Dr. Curl majored in economics, working on mathematical models to study issues such as power generation and automation.
Robert Floyd Curl Jr. was born on August 23, 1933 in Alice, Texas. His father was a Methodist minister who had helped establish Methodist Hospital in San Antonio. His mother Lessie was a housewife.
“When I was 9 years old, my parents gave me a chemistry set,” wrote Dr. Curl in an autobiographical sketch for the Nobel Foundation. “Within a week I had decided I wanted to be a chemist and I never changed my mind from that decision.”
In 1954 he received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Rice, then known as the Rice Institute. He received his PhD in chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley. After a postdoctoral stay at Harvard, he returned to Rice in 1958 as an assistant professor.
In 1967 he became a full professor. He retired in 2005, although he continued to work for many years.
dr Curl married Jonel Whipple in 1955. His survivors include his wife; two sons, Michael and David; and three grandchildren.
after dr Curl won the Nobel Prize, Malcolm Gillis, then President of Rice, asked him what he wanted, perhaps worried that bigger-name institutions would poach him from the university.
dr Curl asked for a bike rack near his office.
“He was an incredibly humble guy,” said Dr. Heath, adding that Dr. Curl got his bike rack.