Robert Floyd Curl Jr. is an American chemist who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the nanomaterial buckminsterfullerene. Born in the early 1930s in Alice, Texas, he mostly grew up in San Antonio, where he completed his schooling. On receiving a chemistry set as a gift from his parents at the age of nine he became captivated by the subject and decided to become a chemist when he grew up, a goal from which he did not waiver. Ultimately he received his BS degree in Chemistry from Rice Institute (later University) and PhD from University of California, Berkeley. After a short stint at Harvard University as postdoctoral fellow, he joined Rice as an Assistant Professor and slowly worked his way up to become the Chairman of the Chemistry Department towards the end of his career. Currently, he is holding the position of University Professor Emeritus, Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor of Natural Sciences Emeritus, and Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Rice University. Over the years, he has collaborated with many well-known scholars on various projects. In 1996, he, together with Richard Smalley and Harold Kroto, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of nanomaterial buckminsterfullerene.
Childhood & Early Life
Robert Floyd Curl was born on August 23, 1933, in Alice, Texas. His father, also Robert Floyd Curls, was a Methodist Minister while his mother, Lessie Waldene Merritt Floyd, was a homemaker. He has an elder sister, Mary Gessner Curl Kurio.
Initially, the family moved a lot and Robert spent the first nine years of his life in various small towns in south Texas. Wherever he went, he was singled out as the ‘preacher’s kid’, a status he did not at all enjoy.
When Robert turned nine, senior Curl became the Supervisor of church activities within the district. The family now settled down in San Antonio and Robert was relieved because he was no longer the ‘preacher’s kid’. Another significant event of this year was that he received a chemistry set as a gift from his parent.
Although the elementary school curricula did not contain chemistry, he began experimenting with it on his own and within a week made up his mind to become a chemist. Since then he did not falter from his aim. Contrarily, with each passing day, he became more interested in the subject.
By Robert’s own admission, he was not particularly brilliant at school. That he always received good grades was because he consistently worked hard. In time, he enrolled at Thomas Jefferson High School. Here they taught chemistry for one year. However, his chemistry teacher made it up by giving him extra project.
On graduating from school in 1950, Robert Floyd Curl Jr. entered Rice University (then Rice Institute) for his undergraduate study. That the college, was one of the few institutions in America that did not charge any tuition fees, was one of the main attraction for the family; a priest did not make much money those days.
However, because the institute did not charge tuition fees, the failure rates were very high. Nonetheless Curl was prepared for the challenge and did academically well. Subsequently in 1954, he earned his BS in Chemistry and joined University of California at Berkeley for his graduate work.
There, he worked in the laboratory of Kenneth Pitzer, who suggested that Curl investigate the matrix isolation infrared spectrum of disiloxane. The aim was to establish whether the Si-O-Si bond was linear or bent. Curl established that Si-O-Si is somewhat bent and received his PhD in 1957.
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In 1957, Robert Curl joined Harvard University for his postdoctoral work. Working under Edgar Bright Wilson, he used microwave spectroscopy to study the bond rotation barriers of molecules.
Sometime now, he received an invitation from Rice University to join its faculty. Therefore, on completion of the postdoctoral period in 1958, he went back to Houston to join Rice University as an Assistant Professor and remained there all through his working life.
Here he took over the laboratory as well as graduate students of George Bird, who had left Rice University for a job in the Polaroid. Inheriting such ready-made set up Curl began working on various topics.
His first student was Jim Kinsey and with him he worked on the microwave spectrum of ClO2 and the treatment of fine and hyperfine structure. Later he began studying the spectra of stable free radicals in collaboration with other scientists.
Subsequently in 1963, he was made an Associate Professor and in 1967, a full professor. In 1976, he was joined by Richard E. Smalley, who had been doing postdoctoral work at the University of Chicago.
Inspired by Robert Curl’s experiments on infrared and microwave spectroscopy Smalley joined Rice University and soon the two scientists began collaborating on various projects. At the same time, far away in Sussex, Harold Walter Kroto was working on gas in carbon-rich giant stars and clouds of gases in interstellar space.
In 1985, Kroto contacted Curl, who told him about a laser beam apparatus built by Smalley. With it they had been studying semiconductors like silicon and germanium. Now, Kroto wanted to use this apparatus to study the formation of carbon chains in red giant stars.
Although Curl and Smalley were initially reluctant to lend it they gave in at the end. Subsequently, Kroto arrived at the Rice University and working together with this apparatus, the three scientists discovered a fullerene molecule with 60 carbon atoms. They named it Buckminsterfullerene and announced their findings on November 14, 1985.
In 1992, Curl became the Chairman of the Department of Chemistry at Rice, retiring from the position in 1996. Then from 1996 to 2002, he was the Harry C. and Olga K. Wiess Professor of Natural Sciences, Rice University.
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In 2003, he became the University Professor, Rice University and remained in the position till 2008, finally retiring at the age of 74. However, he did not all together cut off his ties with the university.
After retirement, he continued to function as the University Professor Emeritus, and concurrently held the positions of Pitzer-Schlumberger Professor of Natural Sciences Emeritus, and Professor of Chemistry Emeritus at Rice University.
In later years, Curl’s researches focused on physical chemistry. He worked to develop trace gas sensors and arrays of quarts turning forks, which could be used for the photoacoustic detection of gases. Other areas of his research include DNA genotyping and sequencing instrumentation, environmental monitoring, free radicals, gas phase chemical kinetics, and infrared laser spectroscopy.
Curl is best known for his 1985 discovery of Buckminsterfullerene, a work he undertook with Richard Smalley and Harold Kroto. While looking for long carbon chains, the three scientists exposed graphite surface to laser pulses. As expected, it resulted in formation of carbon gas. When the gas was condensed, they discovered an unknown substance with 60 or 70 carbon atoms.
Presently they found that the carbon molecule with 60 atoms were more common and began to study its composition. They found that it to be a hollow cage-like structure, arranged in a sphere with five and six edges. They called it Buckminsterfullerene in honor of architect Buckminster Fuller, who worked with this geometric shape
Awards & Achievements
In 1996, Curl received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry jointly with Smalley and Kroto “for their discovery of fullerene”.
In addition, Curl has received many other awards and has been elected to many important societies. In 2001, Antigua and Barbuda issued a stamp in his honor.
Personal Life & Legacy
On 21 December 1955, Robert F. Curl married Jonel Whipple. The couple has two sons, Michael and David Curl.
Although Curl, Smalley and Kroto have received credit for discovering Buckminsterfullerene, Professor Curl has openly admitted that two of his graduate students, James Heath and Sean O'Brien, have equal claim to this discovery. They were equal participants in discussion and carried out a large part of the experiments.