Smalley shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with chemists Robert Curl and Sir Harold Kroto for the discovery of buckminsterfullerene, or "buckyballs," the third form of carbon after diamonds and graphite. The name buckyballs was derived from the compound resembling the geodesic domes made famous by the avant-garde architect and inventor Buckminster Fuller.
Buckyballs measure one nanometer in diameter, and their discovery at Rice University in Houston in 1985 is one of the earliest discoveries in the development of nanotechnology. The central focus of Smalley's research were fullerenes, the family of compounds that includes buckyballs and carbon nanotubes.
Smalley was instrumental in the launch of the National Nanotechnology Initiative in 2000, a sweeping federal R&D program that coordinates the nanotech efforts of nearly two dozen federal agencies. U.S. spending for nanatechnology topped $1 billion this year. Smalley helped found Carbon Nanotechnologies Inc. in 2000 to economically manufacture nanotubes in bulk.
In 2002, Smalley embarked on a crusade to promote the use of nanotechnology as an alternative source of energy. One of Smalley's most ambitious programs, the "Armchair Quantum Wire" project, was described by him as "a continuous cable of buckytubes that we expect will conduct electricity 10 times better than copper." Smalley also coined the terms "wet" nanotechnology to apply to the biological systems that operate at the nanoscale and "dry" nanotechnology to denote physical/chemical systems. His vision was to work at the interface between these wet and dry systems to create entirely new systems.