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October 11th, 2010
As is so often the case with great scientific discoveries, Rick Smalley, Bob Curl and Harry Kroto weren't looking for buckyballs when they found them in 1985.
Smalley had built a fancy machine at Rice University that used lasers to vaporize bits of metal. Kroto, meanwhile, wanted to better understand the nature of tiny chains of carbon dust between stars, so he asked his friend Curl if he wouldn't mind sticking a chunk of graphite inside Smalley's machine.
They did, and unexpectedly discovered a unique form of carbon in which 60 atoms clustered neatly into a tiny, soccer-shaped ball. They christened their finding a buckyball — or fullerene - after Buckminster Fuller, whose geodesic designs the molecules resemble.
The discovery a quarter century ago won the trio a Nobel Prize in 1996 and is, in no small part, responsible for launching the field of nanotechnology.
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