Nobel Laureate Sir Harold Kroto won his Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996, with his fellow collaborators Robert Curl and Richard Smalley. The prize was for their amazing discovery of the existence of the most peculiar form of carbon. Kroto narrated the story of their discovery in the Presidential Speaker Series put forth by Northeastern University’s Profiles in Innovation. “Carbon is peculiar,” he said. “More peculiar than you think.”
It was in the 70s when Kroto came across a long-chain carbon molecule, present in those gas clouds in the sky between stars. He decided to contact Curl and Smalley so that the trio will be able to study the said peculiarities closely. These two were Kroto’s ideal choice, as they’d recently developed a system that will help vaporise metals, all the while studying the effects on the particles at the end.
The result of their collaboration was the discovery of a molecule, that looked vaguely like a soccer ball. They called it ‘Buckminsterfullerene’, in the honour of the designer of the geodesic dome, shaped as same as C60. There was the danger of the discovery being close to discarded, when a new paper came into the light, with the name “Solid C60: A new form of carbon.” However, this paper helped pinpoint the focus of their own, because there was a noticeable difference in the competing paper and their discovery.
“One thing I’d dreamt about,” Kroto said, “was that in C60 all the carbon atoms are equivalent and therefore with one line you should be able to prove its structure.”
The difference was the NMR spectrum. They worked hard to get their discovery recognised, which led them to accept the Nobel Prize for their beautiful molecules. In fact, there exists a different branch of chemistry now, based on this molecule. The story of Kroto and his collaborators sounds as amazing as the discovery of the C60. It is said that ‘Where there is a will, there is a way” – Kroto’s story is the proof.