I attended the Georgia Tech School of Mechanical Engineering's Gegenheimer Lecture on Innovation yesterday. While the speaker, GT alumna Prof. Robin Murphy (Texas A&M), presented an interesting discussion on the use of robots in search and rescue, with considerable attention paid to the interaction between humans and robots, it was the student’s question I happened to hear on my way out that really attracted my attention. This student wanted to know, in the spirit of innovation, if there was something the speaker believed but that others may not.
I found this a thought-provoking inquiry, and spent the next several moments during my walk back to my office considering my own beliefs (scientifically speaking) and how they mesh within the larger scholarly community. In particular, I thought back about 10 years, during the early days of the current nanotechnology revolution and of my impression at that time, with a soupcon of righteous indignation as a card-carrying chemist, that this “new” technology is nothing more than chemistry with a fancy new name. While I have since softened this stance as I gain more knowledge of the breadth of this enterprise, fundamentally I still believe that chemistry contains the elemental principles behind most of nanoscience and nanoengineering. Particles, materials, surfaces, and even devices are all manifestations of inter-atomic and inter-molecular forces (the domain of chemistry) that take on added importance when the materials themselves are on the same scale as their constituent components. The reason a gecko can walk on the ceiling is because the combined van der Waals forces between the millions of nano-sized spatulae on its feet and the ceiling surface are greater than the opposing force of gravity. This is the take-home message I drill into students: There is nothing scientifically new that occurs on the nano-scale, but rather the same interactions and forces we have known about since the advent of organized science take on added magnitude compared to the macro-scale forces.
The centrality of chemistry in our everyday lives was even used by my American Chemical Society colleague Don Hicks when he created a viral marketing campaign (see the bumper magnet below) a few years ago to spur public recognition of the value of our science.
All of this makes the news article I read earlier this week even more grating. It seems a research team from the University of Missouri has developed a new process for gold nanoparticle synthesis that avoids the toxic reagents normally used in such reactions. Instead, the researchers discovered that phytochemicals found in cinnamon (yes, that spice that is omnipresent in our kitchens this time of year) can act as effective reducing agents for turning gold salts into gold nanoparticles. This green process is wonderful and I applaud their ingenuity. However I was taken aback by this assessment: "The procedure we have developed is non-toxic," Kannan said. "No chemicals are used in the generation of gold nanoparticles, except gold salts. It is a true 'green' process."
This reminded me of the challenge by the Royal Society of Chemistry a few years ago for anyone to produce a material that is “chemical-free.” Needless to say, no one has claimed the prize.