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Richard Smalley was a chemist whose last name turned out to be quite appropriate. That's because Smalley was a force in developing the field of nanotechnology. It uses single atoms to build impossibly small structures and machines. Smalley died on Friday. NPR's Nell Boyce has this report on the Nobel Prize winner.

NELL BOYCE reporting:

Even if you've never heard of Richard Smalley, you might have heard of his most famous discovery made in 1985: the buckyball. It's a miniscule sphere made of 60 carbon atoms. Most people take one look at the structure and think soccer ball.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. RICHARD SMALLEY: Like a soccer ball it's just perfectly round and hollow on the inside except this soccer ball is only one-billionth of a meter in diameter.

BOYCE: That's Richard Smalley in an interview with NPR a few years ago. His group named their discovery a buckyball because it looked like the kind of geodesic dome designed by the architect Buckminster Fuller. Smalley and two other scientists shared a Nobel Prize in 1996 for the discovery. It was a previously unknown form of pure carbon, like diamonds and graphite. In another interview, Smalley said the buckyball made scientists realize that they could use something as simple as a carbon atom to build all kinds of interesting structures.

(Soundbite of interview)

Mr. SMALLEY: It turned out that the buckyball, the soccer ball, was something of a Rosetta stone of an infinite new class of molecules.

BOYCE: One of those new molecules was the carbon nanotube, a buckyball stretched out into a cylinder. They're incredibly strong, they have interesting electrical properties and Smalley believed that they would revolutionize everything from computers to medical devices. That's still a dream for the future, but dozens of labs now work on nanotubes and other kinds of nanotechnology. In part, that's because Smalley helped convince funding agencies to pour billions of dollars into the field. Neal Lane was President Clinton's science adviser. He works at Rice University, where Smalley had his lab.

Mr. NEAL LANE (Rice University): Rick was unusually effective at explaining nanotechnology to the public and to the policy-makers. He was powerful that way; he was very influential in Congress.

BOYCE: Smalley was diagnosed with cancer in 1999 but continued working until just before he died. He was 62 years old. Nell Boyce, NPR News.

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