NEW YORK — Harold Kroto, who shared the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering a new arrangement of carbon known as the buckyball, died Saturday in East Sussex, England. He was 76.
The cause was complications of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, his wife, Margaret, said.
As a spectroscopic chemist, Dr. Kroto used electromagnetic radiation to reveal the structures of molecules. His Nobel Prize-winning discovery, which he shared with Richard E. Smalley and Robert F. Curl Jr. of Rice University in Houston, was the Buckminsterfullerene molecule, a cage of 60 carbon atoms made of interlocking pentagons and hexagons.
Dr. Kroto, who had a passion for art, named it after Buckminster Fuller, the visionary architect whose geodesic dome-shaped buildings closely resemble the fullerene sphere.
“Nobody had ever thought of a molecule that could be that symmetrical and only consist of one element that is carbon,” said Naresh Dalal, a chemistry professor at Florida State University, where Dr. Kroto worked for nearly a decade before returning to England in the fall of 2015.
The buckyball was the third form of carbon to be found after diamonds and graphite. Dr. Kroto often likened the molecule to a soccer ball (or a “football” when speaking to audiences outside of the United States) with a cavity in the middle that could carry smaller molecules.
“Unlike most discoveries in chemistry, it was very accessible,” said Graham Farmelo, a science writer who worked with Dr. Kroto at the Science Museum in London. “You could explain it to a child.”
The fullerene discovery opened a new field of nanotechnology that at one point was the subject of more than 1,000 published papers a year. The molecule has potential applications in drug delivery, computing and high-speed transportation, Dalal said.
Harold Krotoschiner was born in Wisbech, England, on Oct. 7, 1939, soon after the outset of World War II. The son of refugees from Berlin, he was moved to the town of Bolton with his mother, Edith, a year later while his father, Heinz, was interned on the Isle of Man as an “enemy alien.”
After the war, his father became an apprentice engineer and in 1955 opened a factory to make balloons and print faces on them. Around that time, he changed the family name, which is of Silesian origin, to Kroto.
As a boy, Dr. Kroto often worked with his father in the factory. He credited the experience, along with his days playing with a Meccano engineering set, with giving him the problem-solving skills needed to be a research scientist. He attended the Bolton School, where he became fascinated by chemistry and art.
He studied chemistry at the University of Sheffield, earning his undergraduate degree in 1961, and completed his PhD there in 1964 with a focus on spectroscopy. As a student, he divided his time between conducting experiments, playing tennis, and designing covers for the student magazine, Arrows.
Dr. Kroto completed postdoctoral work in the United States and Canada for three years before returning to England to accept a teaching position at the University of Sussex in 1967.
He began collaborating with Curl and Smalley at Rice in the fall of 1985. In their experiments, they blasted graphite with lasers to recreate the plasma conditions found in stars and investigate carbon clusters. The discovery of the 60-carbon molecule came out of these tests.
Dr. Kroto was knighted in 1996. He left Sussex in 2004 for Florida State University, where he taught and conducted research.
In addition to his wife of 53 years, Margaret, he leaves two sons, Stephen and David.
Dr. Kroto was passionate about mentoring young scientists. He created educational videos through the Vega Science Trust and Florida State’s Geoset, which are online repositories of short science presentations. He also presented his buckyball workshops in Sweden, Malaysia, India, China, and Japan.
“I think Harry was happiest when he was doing one of his workshops and getting on the ground with the kids building models of buckyballs,” said Mark A. Riley, a nuclear physicist at Florida State. “That’s what he really loved.”
Dr. Kroto long suspected that interstellar space was awash in buckyballs, a hunch that researchers have confirmed in recent years.
“I didn’t think I would live to see it proven to be the case,” he said in a Chemistry World video last year. “Who would have thought there were footballs all over the galaxy?”