Nobel laureate Richard Smalley (search), a Rice University professor who helped discover buckyballs, the soccer ball-shaped form of carbon, and championed the field of nanotechnology, has died at the age of 62.

Smalley, who had battled cancer, died Friday at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Rice University (search) said.

"We will miss Rick's brilliance, commitment, energy, enthusiasm and humanity," Rice President David Leebron said.

He shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in chemistry with fellow Rice chemist Robert Curl (search) and British chemist Sir Harold Kroto (search) for the discovery of the new form of carbon, which they dubbed buckminsterfullerene (search) — buckyballs for short — because of its resemblance to the geodesic domes designed by Buckminster Fuller (search).

"In my view, this was a singular event in the history of nanotechnology," said Neal Lane, a senior fellow at Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy (search). "It not only created a whole new field of 'fullerene chemistry,' it immediately made feasible the notion of making things from the bottom up, just as physicist Richard Feynman (search) had predicted 50 years earlier."

Nanotechnology (search), for things measured in billionths of a meter, involves manipulating materials on an atomic or molecular scale to build microscopic devices.

Smalley's research remained focused on the compounds until his death. His leadership helped lead the U.S. to launch the National Nanotechnology Initiative (search) in 2000.

"Rick was incredibly creative and had the ability to make his creative vision a reality," said Curl, professor emeritus of chemistry. "His mind was like a searchlight bringing whatever it looked at into clarity."