By John Carroll
Small Times Correspondent
DALLAS, Aug. 29, 2001 — Alan MacDiarmid has always based his research on a simple premise: “Science is people.”
“You can have the most beautiful institute in the world, but if you don’t have first-class people you’re going to do lousy research,” said the Nobel Prize-winning scientist.
Now, MacDiarmid is bringing this precept to the fledgling NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas (UTD), where he recently signed on to work as chairman of the institute’s advisory committee.
It’s anything but an honorary role. In a lengthy interview with Small Times, MacDiarmid laid out ambitious plans to devote 125 days a year to his UTD tasks, beginning this fall with the institute’s inaugural semester. He’ll combine his supervision of a group of six nanotechnology researchers in the laboratory with a whirl of meetings aimed at bringing to Dallas the best and brightest nanotech scientists from around the world.
MacDiarmid will be a key visionary in mapping out the institute’s path to some ambitious goals, said Ray Baughman, the institute’s newly appointed director.
“Alan is a person who is unique, and not just because of his truly outstanding scientific capabilities but because of his relationships around the world,” said Baughman as he was packing up to move from New Jersey to Dallas and his new job.
Baughman has already recruited an international crew of nanotech researchers from Spain, Korea and Russia. Baughman will need all the connections he can get. The scientist wants to see a host of commercial spin-offs from the results of the institute’s research and has set his sights on helping to spawn a Nanotech Corridor alongside the huge Telecom Corridor that has grown up near the university’s Richardson, Texas, campus.
Initially, said Baughman, the institute will focus much of its work on carbon nanotubes for energy storage and photonic nanocrystals in semiconductors. Later, he added, researchers will move into various other areas of nanotechnology, with an emphasis on the potential it has to spawn new biotech products.
Baughman said he’s anxious to team up with private companies in the region like Zyvex, which is exploring the commercial potential of molecular manufacturing in a Richardson office park.
Zyvex has been a keen backer of UTD’s NanoTech Institute. Company founder James Von Ehr pledged $2.5 million toward the university’s nanotechnology efforts. And Von Ehr said that there’s already been a significant amount of interaction between the university’s scientists and his staff researchers.
Gaining a Nobel laureate “really puts UTD out there in a pretty good position,” said Von Ehr. Further collaborations are planned as Von Ehr brings some of the university’s top students in to work with Zyvex’s equipment and participate in joint research projects.
“The fact is that we have some excellent equipment in the lab, including things that UTD doesn’t have,” Von Ehr said.
A string of nanotech companies and university research arms scattered throughout Texas has already made the Lone Star State a hotbed of nanotech activity. Von Ehr helped bring 14 universities and businesses together to form the Texas Nanotechnology Initiative, and UTD won $500,000 from the state legislature last May to help launch its new institute.
Much of the institute’s success, said MacDiarmid, will depend on the intellectual sparks that fly whenever leading scientists come together.
“So frequently the key advances are made outside the meeting room” as scientists sit down for a beer or over lunch to discuss their work, MacDiarmid said. By bringing together the best minds from various disciplines, he said, UTD can become a leader in initiating new advances in nanotechnology.
“The future big advances are going to be in the area of interdisciplines,” said MacDiarmid, who will also continue as Blanchard Professor of Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. Under a unique agreement with UTD he’ll rotate his researchers between both campuses, traveling to Texas intermittently while he coordinates his research work in both states.
MacDiarmid has considerable experience in interdisciplinary research. He won the Nobel Prize in chemistry last year for work that started more than a quarter-century ago. In the early ’70s, he focused his attention on organic conducting polymers, working with Hideki Shirakawa at the Tokyo Institute of Technology, who introduced him to a new form of polyacetylene.
They were joined by Alan Heeger at the University of Pennsylvania’s department of physics in groundbreaking interdisciplinary research that led to the discovery of conducting polymers — commonly referred to today as synthetic metals.
By working together, said MacDiarmid, they were able to discover that organic polymers could be “doped” and turned into a conducting material similar to metals. One way of doping polymers, they found, was to introduce a chemical compound that reduced the number of electrons packed inside the plastic. That allowed the material to conduct electricity.
Other researchers were quick to see the possibilities and have been building on the trio’s work to use the conducting polymers in rechargeable batteries, stealth applications, corrosion inhibition and “plastic” transistors and electrodes.
“Interdisciplinary research is tougher than carrying out regular research in one field,” MacDiarmid said. “One of the keys in interdisciplinary research is to learn the language of a different field, and that takes time.”
But in nanoscience, he added, the extra effort has to be made, particularly as no one person is able to keep up with all of the literature and advances being made daily.
MacDiarmid will initially direct his research group to look for unexpected reactions involving nanomaterials. But don’t expect him to outline exactly what he wants.
“I don’t know what I’m looking for,” MacDiarmid said.
In pioneering research, scientists journey into the unknown. When researchers traveled into space, MacDiarmid said, they found unexpected phenomena, just as they did when they examined life forms at the bottom of the sea under incredible pressures.
MacDiarmid’s research group will build on his experience involving conducting polymers. “In my opinion, it’s not unreasonable to believe that in the next few years we’ll see true nanoelectronics.”
Nanoelectronics, for example, can be key to developing new biomedical systems that require very tiny devices that can be inserted into a body — including sensors that can travel in the bloodstream. “We need nanoelectronics to power them,” said MacDiarmid, who’s been experimenting recently with “electronic transportation of living microorganisms through air.”
Mixing water and yeast together to initiate reproduction, MacDiarmid charges the mix to 25,000 volts. Setting up a negative electrode a foot away, he found he could attract yeast particles through the air. These kinds of experiments, he says, may help lead researchers to better understand how to power and direct tiny biomedical devices in the human body.
Still, he has no long-term goals for where nanotechnology research is headed. There are too many unexpected twists and turns ahead.
“If five years from now we are doing what we are planning to do now,” MacDiarmid said, “then something is wrong.”
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