English chemist who with US chemists Robert F Curl and Richard E Smalley shared the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1996 for their discovery of fullerenes.
Using spectroscopy, Kroto had discovered the existence of long-chain molecules composed of only carbon and nitrogen in the atmospheres of carbon-rich giant stars and in interstellar gas clouds. He was investigating how these carbon chains formed when he and his associates discovered fullerenes.
Kroto had contacted Smalley at Rice University, Texas, USA, and in 1985, together with Robert Curl, conducted a series of experiments using the laser supersonic cluster beam apparatus built by Smalley. They vaporized graphite in an inert atmosphere of helium and analysed the spectra of the resulting vapour. This analysis showed that they had not only succeeded in generating carbon chain molecules, but had also created a previously unknown form of carbon.
Until then only two stable forms or allotropes of carbon had been known, diamond and graphite. The new allotrope was mainly composed of 60 carbon atoms linked together in 12 pentagons and 20 hexagons that fitted together to form a hollow sphere. Designated as C60, this was shown to be only one of a family of similar compounds, of which C70, C76, C78, and C84 have since been identified.
Kroto and his colleagues named this new form of carbon ‘fullerene’ after the US architect Richard Buckminster Fuller, because of the structural similarity between the carbon molecules and the geodesic dome which Fuller designed. They are also commonly referred to as buckminsterfullerenes or ‘buckyballs’.
Fullerene chemistry is now an established branch of organic chemistry and many novel applications are being investigated. Already, new molecules based on a metal ion enclosed by a ‘buckyball’ cage are being studied. The potential uses of fullerenes are diverse, ranging from lubricants and semiconductors, to a precursor for new drugs.
Kroto was born in Wisbech, England. He studied for a PhD in chemistry at the University of Sheffield, England, which he was awarded in 1964. He joined the faculty of the University of Sussex in 1967 and became a professor of chemistry there in 1985. He became a Royal Society professor in 1991. He was knighted in 1996.
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