The Nobel Prize in chemistry was awarded today to two Americans and one British researcher for their discovery of fullerenes, a new class of all-carbon molecules shaped like hollow balls.
The researchers, Richard E. Smalley and Robert F. Curl Jr. of Rice University in Houston, and Harold W. Kroto of the University of Sussex in Brighton, United Kingdom, made their discovery in 1985 in Smalley's lab at Rice while working together to study how carbon atoms cluster.
"The award is richly deserved," says Robert Haddon, a fullerene chemist at Lucent Technologies' Bell Labs in Murray Hill, New Jersey. "It led to a totally new field of chemistry." Today, fullerenes--which are popularly known as buckyballs--are being investigated for everything from new superconductors and three-dimensional polymers, to catalysts and optical materials, although they have yet to spawn any commercial applications.
Before the group's discovery, crystalline carbon was thought to adopt only a handful of different molecular architectures, including those found in diamond and graphite. But the researchers discovered that sheets of carbon atoms arranged in a pattern of hexagons and pentagons can curl up and ultimately close to form hollow cages. And because the number of atoms in the cage can vary, an almost infinite number of fullerene shapes may exist.