Bucky's Brains

Tiny discoveries take Rice researcher Smalley to the top

When it comes to the big things, Richard Smalley isn't interested. He doesn't care for his office's gigantic coffee machine. "I hate that thing," says the Rice University professor. And he isn't awed by the massive computer system on campus, which today has denied him an e-mail. Rather, the 61-year-old chemist knows the important things are small.

"The nanometer scale was really at the frontier of essentially every department of science and engineering on campus" in recent years, Smalley says. And boosters predict nanotechnology will create a new, worldwide industrial revolution in years to come, enabling lighter, stronger fibers, tinier computers and drugs that work like minute robots, targeting cancer cells and blowing them up on cue. The U.S. government says nano could generate a trillion dollars in economic impacts within a decade.

More than anyone else, Smalley has helped Houston fuse a potential nanoboom.

Smalley says nano research has "captured people's 
imaginations."
Smalley says nano research has "captured people's imaginations."

With his bald head, silver shirt and silver pencil mustache, Smalley looks like he could be a character out of one of the sci-fi novels he read as a child. Yet growing up in Kansas, he says, "I was a pretty miserable student until my junior year in high school. His first A, of course, was in chemistry. He joined Rice's chemistry faculty in 1976 as an assistant professor.

In a Rice laboratory nine years later, Smalley became an inadvertent nanopioneer. He and two colleagues blasted a plate of graphite with a laser, expecting to produce linear chains of carbon atoms. To their surprise, some of the atoms formed into identical clusters. Smalley correctly guessed that he had discovered C-60, the third elemental form of carbon -- the other two being graphite and diamond.

The clusters were shaped like soccer balls, and also reminded Smalley of the geodesic domes conceived by architect Buckminster Fuller. Smalley and his colleague, Harry Kroto, named them buckminsterfullerenes, or buckyballs. The discovery later won them the Nobel Prize.

Other researchers soon identified the gangly, overachieving brother of buckyballs, single-walled carbon nanotubes. Cylinders instead of orbs, they possess Herculean properties that scientists never knew carbon molecules could exhibit. They have up to 100 times the strength of steel, at one-sixth the weight, and also can carry electricity. They began fueling a new scientific industry in the '90s, one that Smalley encouraged Rice to harness.

The Rice Chemistry Department was having problems at the time recruiting faculty. Smalley asked his fellow professors to consider forgoing a new chemistry building in favor of attracting researchers with the world's first nanotechnology center. "To their everlasting credit, my colleagues said, 'Fine, let's do it,' " he recalls. Dell Butcher Hall opened its doors in 1997 as the new home to Rice's multimillion-dollar Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology.

Meanwhile, doors in Smalley's personal life were closing. He filed for divorce that year with his third wife, Jonell Chauvin, a nightclub worker he had married after she gave birth to his son, Preston. Smalley fell sick during a rancorous custody battle and was diagnosed with leukemia.

Despite his illness and the challenges of caring for his son, he never slowed down professionally. "My life has been always very busy," he says, "and I feel it's actually good for my health."

By the end of the '90s, Smalley's buckyball paper had been cited in peer-reviewed journals more than any other nanotechnology study in the world. With a salary in excess of $400,000, Smalley was also Rice's highest-paid teacher and researcher. Conrad Masterson, the director of the Nanotechnology Foundation of Texas, says Smalley's role in developing a local nano industry was crucial. Without him, he says, "we wouldn't have anything."

Smalley became an increasingly prominent local businessman and deal maker. In 2000, he founded Houston-based Carbon Nanotechnologies Incorporated, the world's largest manufacturer of single-walled carbon nanotubes, key nanotech building blocks. And in 2004, he helped create the Alliance for Nanohealth, an all-star partnership among five of Houston's major medical research institutions and universities. Masterson calls the alliance "a tremendous opportunity" and says it's the best thing to come to the city since the Baylor College of Medicine.

Smalley is modest about his achievements. "I don't think it's just my work," he says. "Nanotechnology in general has really helped to put Rice on the map and captured people's imaginations."

Of course, it has also captured people's fears. Bill Joy, co-founder of the computer giant Sun Microsystems, wrote a widely read article in Wired Magazine in 2000 predicting that self-replicating nanobots could digest the planet into a mass of gray goo. Then came Prey, Michael Crichton's nanobot-inspired thriller. Most scientists discount the apocalyptic scenarios. Instead, research on the safety of nanomaterials is focusing on their potential to damage lungs and other tissues. Rice is a major supporter of such studies. Smalley believes the evidence so far shows most nanomaterials are safe.

In fact, Smalley says, nano actually could make the world a cleaner, healthier place. He foresees nano-enhanced solar panels and nanocatalysts that could extract more energy from burning coal at higher temperatures. The applications could transform Houston into a post-petroleum-energy capital.

Still, Smalley thinks Houston needs to commit much more funding toward nano research if it's to become anything like a hub for the technology. "Even though we have some of the best groups around the world right now in Houston, this is still not a place that is thought of when you talk about the generation of high technology in the world," he says. "It's still Boston or the Bay Area or Caltech or San Diego. And there are very good people there, and they are not slouching by any means."

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