Nano visionary Richard Smalley dies

A professor who helped promote nanotechnology and cleaner fuel has died of cancer at 62.

Michael Kanellos
Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
2 min read
Richard Smalley, a Rice University professor who helped jump-start the field of nanotechnology, died Friday after a long bout with cancer.

Smalley, 62, is mostly known for discovering a form of carbon called a fullerene, or informally known as a buckyball. It is a soccer-shaped molecule that consists of 60 carbon atoms, which some believe will one day be used to transport drugs in the human body or strengthen aircraft parts and other equipment.

The discovery of fullerene helped put the then-emerging field of nanotechnology, which involves making products from designer molecules, into the limelight. Smalley's profile grew as well. He founded Carbon Nanotechnologies, which makes carbon nanotubes, a tube-shaped form of pure carbon that some believe will ferry electrons inside chips.

Richard Smalley
Credit: Rice University
Richard Smalley

Besides the 1996 Nobel in Chemistry, Smalley was awarded the Irving Langmuir Prize, the Franklin Medal, and the Ernest O. Lawrence Memorial Award. (Rice students also crowned him homecoming queen in 1996.)

In the past few years, Smalley became an outspoken advocate for dedicating research to alternative energy technologies.

"It may be a greater challenge for us than the Cold War...to make it possible for 10 billion people to live the lifestyle you are used to in a way that doesn't cause unacceptable impacts on the environment," he told an audience of scientists at the International Electron Devices Meeting in San Francisco last December. "There is no escaping the problem. The consequences will be terrorism, pestilence, famine."

The professor, however, was no enemy to oil companies. He commented during a meeting with reporters how he would often warn about the pending energy crisis to people who were members of Texas' best country clubs. A few years ago, he said, alternative energy ideas were dismissed by many oil executives. But in the past two years, many began to agree with him, he said.