Renee Diehl's research project began small, but it didn't stay that way. Diehl, a professor of physics at Pennsylvania State University, was interested in how fullerene molecules bond to metal substrates. The project began with Diehl and three of his students, but grew to twelve people at seven different institutions by the time it was published (Phys. Rev. Lett. 103, 056101; 2009). Researchers from the University of Liverpool helped with the experiments, and theorists from Finland, Germany and the US performed simulations. Initial calculations by Wolfgang Moritz from the University of Munich contradicted previous results, including those of Lin-Lin Wang from the University of Illinois, who then joined the collaboration, along with theorists from Duke University, the University of Florida and Lappeenranta University of Technology.

The team observed the adsorption of a fullerene monolayer on a silver surface using electron diffraction, and compared their data with the predictions of models to reveal the arrangement of carbon and silver atoms. The fullerene molecule is the most complex structure to have been analysed this way. Despite the relative strength of silver–silver bonds, the fullerene molecules dug small holes in the silver underneath their adsorption sites. This behaviour, which had not been previously observed, may have implications for interfaces in molecular electronics as well as biology.

The complexity of the project meant that it took some time to finish. “We have never taken so long to do a study like this” says Diehl. “It seemed to drag on forever because the analysis was so complicated. As problems become more complex, it is almost imperative to collaborate with others.” Diehl considers the students, in particular, to have benefited. “I can see them grow” he says. “I think they are more likely to consider research careers as a result of these interactions.”