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BC scientists looking beyond silicon to the next new thing

Submicroscopic carbon bowlsFor several days next summer, Boston College will be the international center of investigations in radical technological advances touching on areas ranging from medicine to electronics to military wardrobes. The occasion will be the third annual International Conference on the Science and Application of Nanotubes--or Nanotube 2002, for short.

Nanotube study was born a mere 16 years ago with the discovery of a new form of carbon. The three-dimensional molecule looks remarkably like a soccer ball--or a geodesic dome. The scientists who discovered the molecule, Richard Smalley and Robert F. Curl, Jr., of Rice University and Sir Harold W. Kroto of the University of Sussex in England, shared the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996. They named their find "buckminsterfullerene," in homage to the eccentric American architect R. Buckminster Fuller, who designed the geodesic dome. The press dubbed the structures buckyballs.

The microscopic structures quickly captured scientists' attention. Carbon is one of about 100 elements in the universe and a particularly important one since it is found in all organic material. Until the detection of the buckyball, the only known forms of pure carbon were diamonds and graphite. "It's like Columbus discovering a new continent," says Boston College chemistry professor and buckyball researcher Lawrence Scott. "We don't know if it's any worse or better than Europe, but it's different and it looks good."

Experiments soon revealed that the new carbon came in dozens of sizes and arrangements, each with different and intriguing properties. Long tubes of the material--nanotubes--50,000 times thinner than human hair, possess particularly promising characteristics, including superconductivity, or the ability to conduct electricity without loss to resistance. Add to that great flexibility, tensile strength 100 times greater than steel, and minuscule size, and it's easy to understand the scientists' excitement.

"In the 20th century it was silicon technology, and that remade our whole society with computers and all sorts of high technology," says BC Associate Professor of Physics Zhifeng Ren. "In this century I think nanotechnology will be the new silicon."

Dazzled by the material's possibilities, Ren started his nanotube research in 1997 at the State University of New York at Buffalo. He moved to Boston College in 1999 and now has 10 people in his lab at Higgins Hall working on nanoproducts.

One focus is combining nanotubes with other materials to make windows that will shield electromagnetic interference on airplanes and spacecraft while letting in light. Another project's aim is to use nanotubes in developing flat, thin panels that will take the place of the conventional computer screen. Ultimately, a screen could be made as thin and supple as a handkerchief, a piece of "electronic paper" that folds and unfolds.

Ren works closely with BC Physics Professor Krzysztof Kempa, a theorist who tests the ideas with calculations and models before Ren attempts to realize them in the laboratory. The two have also joined to form a start-up company, NanoLab, in nearby Brighton, which sells nanotubes and related products under a license agreement with Boston College. The technology is patented by the University. "We have the classic collaboration between theorist and experimentalist, and now we're going one step further, trying to make a product out of it," Kempa says.

Kempa became interested in nanotubes when Ren joined the BC faculty. A solid-state theorist, Kempa had been working on electronic semiconductors, particularly a material called galliumarsenite, arranged in layers. "It was natural to think about doing work [in nanotubes], going from layers to 3-D systems," he said. Kempa calls the new carbon "a very extreme material; the spectrum of applications is almost unbelievable."

One application that Ren and Kempa are exploring together is the idea of imbedding nanotubes into fibers for clothing that is strong, lightweight, and endowed with electrical properties--a futuristic smart suit. The goal of the research, being done with grants from and in collaboration with the U.S. Army's Natick Soldier Center, is to develop uniforms that can adapt their camouflage to different backgrounds, react to toxins, allow direct electronic communication (suit-to- suit), and adjust to temperature changes.

"There's just huge potential," says Dr. Michael Sennett of the Natick Soldier Center. "Anywhere you look in the literature now there are really spectacular predictions for what we can accomplish in terms of material performance. It's an exciting field to be working on."

Researchers elsewhere are exploring the carbon molecules' potential medical applications, looking at using buckyballs to deliver medicines, for example, or to block the AIDS virus. Robert Haddon, a professor of chemistry and engineering at the University of California in Riverside, who discovered the superconductivity of buckyballs while at Bell Laboratories, is testing their use as neuronal prostheses in people with nerve damage.

The main obstacle to realizing nanotechnology's promise--besides the quirks and dead-ends associated with trying to apply any new science--has been the cost and availability of the raw material. "Until recently the price [for nanotubes] was about $1,000 a gram," the Army's Sennett says. "For any large-scale application, that cost is prohibitive." Already, he says, the cost is going down. But considering that the current crop of high-performance materials--fabrics such as bullet- protecting Kevlar or Zylon--cost only about $20 to $30 a pound, nanotechnology, says Sennett, still has "a long way to go in order to compete."

There's a lot of investment in the problem, though, from all parts of the military as well as private companies. The Army, for example, plans to spend $10 million a year for five years to establish an Institute for Soldier Nanotechnologies. The money will go to a single university, and Boston College already plans to contend for the award. According to Michael Smyer, the University's associate vice president for research, Boston College's competitive position in the new field stems from strategic investments in its physics department.

"It started," Smyer says, "with the understanding that we needed to pick an area where we can be effective with only 14 faculty." Over the last six years, beginning, he says, with the hiring of Kevin Bedell from the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico to head the department, the University has "explicitly focused in on the area of novel electronic materials, including nanotechnology."

Key to bringing down the cost of nanotechnology is finding a controlled way of producing both buckyballs and nanotubes in bulk. BC's Professor Scott is among the scientists worldwide who are looking for what's called the "rational synthetic" method of making specific forms of buckyballs in predictable and large quantities.

"It was the immediate challenge to the whole world of organic chemists," Scott said. "It's like climbing Mt. Everest--the first person to do it gets more recognition than the third."

Scott recently drew attention for his collaboration with German and Israeli scientists on creating a partial buckyball--a "buckybowl" that he views as a promising building block for constructing the full buckyball. The process he employs uses extremely high temperatures, instead of the more traditional lasers. "Two years ago, it was still dark in the tunnel. Now we know [from submicroscopic study] that the idea is sound and we can see our way to the end," he says. "It's safe to say that our laboratory is ahead of everybody else in the world."

Scott also is talking with Kempa and Ren about the possibility of using his buckyball work to make nanotubes in a more controlled way. The ultimate goal, says Scott: "to develop new things that do neat things."

Johanna Seltz

Johanna Seltz is a writer based in Hingham, Massachusetts.

Photo: Submicroscopic carbon bowls, created in the laboratory of BC Chemistry Professor Lawrence Scott, are a step toward a goal shared by scientists worldwide: the mass production of versatile carbon balls called buckyballs.

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