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Home > Press > From beams to buckyballs

Abstract:
Happy 50th to the laser, which set the stage for Rice's nano revolution

From beams to buckyballs

Houston, TX | Posted on May 12th, 2010

Twenty-five years after the laser beam came to be, a historic meeting took place at Rice University that led to the discovery of the buckminsterfullerene, the carbon 60 molecule for which two Rice scientists won the Nobel Prize.

Now that the buckyball is celebrating its own 25th anniversary, it's worth noting that one wouldn't have happened without the other.

During the Year of Nano, Rice will honor Nobel laureates Robert Curl and the late Richard Smalley, their research colleague and co-laureate, Sir Harold Kroto, then of the University of Sussex, and former graduate students James Heath and Sean O'Brien with a series of events culminating in an Oct. 11-13 symposium at Rice on nanotechnology's past, present and future.

But Curl happily throws a share of the credit to another Rice professor, Frank Tittel, a laser pioneer whose work continues to break new ground in chemical sensing.

Fifty years ago this Sunday, on May 16, 1960, Hughes Research scientist Theodore Maiman fired off the first laser beam from a small ruby rod, a camera flashlamp and a power supply.

Not long after the news was reported in the New York Times, Tittel, now Rice's J.S. Abercrombie Professor in Electrical and Computer Engineering, was asked by his new bosses at General Electric to recreate Maiman's device. "That used brute force," Tittel said of his first laser, later donated to the Franklin Institute Science Museum in Philadelphia. "Now we're more sophisticated."

Tittel joined Rice in 1967 and quickly built the first tunable laser in Texas, used in spectroscopy and sensing devices. He also formed collaborations with other professors, including Curl, who is now Rice's University Professor Emeritus and Kenneth S. Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor Emeritus of Natural Sciences.

Kroto, a chemist by training who developed an interest in astrophysics, visited Rice in 1985 to use a unique apparatus designed by Smalley with help from Tittel and Curl to figure out why chains of carbon molecules were so abundant in interstellar clouds. The apparatus incorporated lasers to vaporize a thin disk of graphite and as part of a spectrometer to analyze the compounds that resulted.

Curl said Smalley initially showed little interest in pursuing the experiment, but Curl thought Kroto's ideas had merit. "My argument was that the experiment might actually lead to a test of a proposal of the origin of the diffuse interstellar bands," he said. "Rick could see the advantage of trying to find the solution to a 50-year-old mystery."

But something else caught their attention. The experiments in late 1985 showed an abundance of carbon 60, which set the scientists racing to figure out what such a molecule would look like. "We had this problem that this (carbon cluster) was a little strong, and it looked like there was something there," Curl said, noting that the team pursued the interstellar question no further. "The discovery of the fullerenes drew all our attention."

Smalley was the first to find the solution by assembling a paper model of hexagons and pentagons that turned out to be identical to a soccer ball. (In a webcast available here, Curl described how the team came up with the key to the solution over enchiladas at a Houston diner.)

Within days, Nature received their paper announcing the discovery of the buckminsterfullerene, which they described as a "truncated icosahedron." The scientists noted they were "disturbed at the number of letters and syllables in the rather fanciful but highly appropriate name. … A number of alternatives come to mind (for example, ballene, spherene, soccerene, carbosoccer), but we prefer to let this issue of nomenclature be settled by consensus." It became popularly known as the buckyball.

Tittel will take part in the October symposium that will feature a discussion of the discovery by Curl; Kroto, now the Francis Eppes Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Florida State University; Heath, the Elizabeth W. Gilloon Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology; and O'Brien, vice president of process engineering at MEMtronics.

The symposium will include talks by top international scientists on the state of the art in nanotechnology and its future. Related events include the 10-10-10 Gala and the Oct. 11 Bucky ‘Ball' Celebration, an on-campus open house of all things nano at which the National Historic Chemical Landmark designation for the buckyball discovery will be bestowed upon Rice's Space Science Building.

Lockheed Martin is the primary sponsor of the Year of Nano organized by Rice's Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology. The institutions are partners in the Lockheed Martin Advanced Nanotechnology Center of Excellence at Rice, aka LANCER, through which researchers in academia tackle the high-tech industry's toughest problems.

Rice scientists are also sponsoring a public talk about the 50th anniversary of the laser at the American Physical Society Division of Atomic, Molecular and Optical Physics meeting. It will be held at 8 p.m. May 26 at the Hyatt Regency Houston Hotel, 1200 Louisiana St., Houston. The talk is free and open to all.

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About Rice University
Located in Houston, Rice University is consistently ranked one of America's best teaching and research universities. Known for its "unconventional wisdom," Rice is distinguished by its: size -- 3,102 undergraduates and 2,237 graduate students; selectivity -- 12 applicants for each place in the freshman class; resources -- an undergraduate student-to-faculty ratio of 5-to-1; sixth largest endowment per student among American private research universities; residential college system, which builds communities that are both close-knit and diverse; and collaborative culture, which crosses disciplines, integrates teaching and research, and intermingles undergraduate and graduate work.

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Contacts:
David Ruth
713-348-6327

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