Thursday, October 22, 2009

National Chemistry Week

Happy National Chemistry Week!  NCW, as it is affectionately known, is an annual community-based program of the American Chemical Society (ACS) that seeks to communicate the importance of chemistry and the role that chemists play in improving our quality of life.  Every year the ACS chooses a new theme for NCW, and since this year marks the 140th anniversary of Mendeleev’s Periodic Table, the theme for 2009 is “Chemistry – It’s Elemental!” 

The Georgia local section of the ACS is sponsoring and promoting many NCW activities throughout Metro Atlanta this week, and I was able to contribute to two of them.  On Tuesday night, a small but enthusiastic crowd gathered at the Fernbank Science Center for a Science CafĂ© entitled “Nanotechnology: It’s Bigger than You Think,” which I facilitated together with Joyce Palmer.  The discussion was based upon the three-part series “Power of Small”, which ran on PBS last year.  Each episode is a panel discussion (including some luminaries of the nano-world such as George Whitesides and Andrew Maynard, among others) where scenarios about the applications of nanotechnology and its impact on society are considered.  Joyce and I used video segments along with targeted questions to engage the audience in a spirited conversation about nanotechnology and issues related to privacy, health and medical care, and the environment.  I encourage everyone to visit the “Power of Small” website, where you can watch the video clips and download related material.

On Wednesday, I joined several chemists in a unique media experiment at Georgia Tech.  Pete Ludovice and Bill Hunt of the Georgia Tech College of Engineering host a weekly radio show on WREK (91.1 FM) titled INSIDE THE BLACK BOX, or as they like to call it "science, only funnier."  In honor of NCW, we assembled a panel of “chemistry geeks” to talk about the work that we do. The other panelists were David Sherrill, Christine Payne, and Facundo Fernandez from the Georgia Tech School of Chemistry & Biochemistry, and Vernita Lockhart from The Coca-Cola Company.  The media experiment was that Warren Matthews (GA Tech OIT) arranged a live, video teleconference with chemistry students at Apalachee H.S. in Barrow County, GA and North Hall H.S. in Hall County, GA.  The students posed many excellent questions, including the benefits and risks of drinking Coke beverages to my friend Vernita, and we were all asked to reminisce about the “aha moment” in our lives when we realized that science was our calling.

In honor of the NCW theme, here is a link to “The Elements” sung by Tom Lehrer (Lyrics by Dmitri Mendeleev, Music by Gilbert & Sullivan).

Thursday, October 8, 2009

From Curiosity to Commodity

Is it me, or is the pace of scientific research and technological advancement occurring at an ever increasing rate?  Although I am not a science historian, I think if you look at previous technological revolutions, you usually find an initial discovery or set of discoveries that can take decades or centuries to find their way into applications and common usage (See my earlier post about the TV series “Connections”).  Now the geometric nature of Moore’s Law seems to have taken over the entire (nano)technology landscape.

It seems like only a few years ago that no one but a few insiders had heard of graphene, the single layer carbon sheet with interesting electrical, mechanical, and thermal properties.  Now, a recent article in Nature Nanotechnology (Vol. 4, pp. 612-514) entitled "Selling graphene by the ton" describes the commoditization of this unique material.  The starting material, graphite, is readily and cheaply available, and the processing to extract the graphene platelets is relatively simple and inexpensive.  Associate Editor Michael Segal relates that three U.S. start-up companies (Vorbeck Materials, Angstron Materials, and XG Sciences) are already producing more than 15 tons/year for use in composite materials and electrodes.  It is expected that this production will exceed 200 tons in a few years.  Although this seems like a lot to you and me, apparently this is still small potatoes to the chemical industry giants (Dow, 3M, BASF and DuPont) who have reservations about the economic benefits.  The short article also describes the dispute between the research and industry communities over the definition of graphene, whether it constitutes only a single carbon sheet or a multilayer.

Of course, once a technology becomes a business it has to have its own trade press.  Okay, Graphene Times is not really a newspaper or magazine, but rather a website created by Mike Sprinkle, a Georgia Tech physics grad student in Walt de Heer’s lab.  This website compiles (similar to Google Reader) the continuing accumulation of research papers and other news about graphene.  If you want to learn about the latest findings hot off the peer-reviewed press or see where commercialization of this novel material is heading, this is a good place to start.