Nanotechnology is a growing field that focuses on matter at a very small scale, such as a cluster of atoms or molecules, and creating new materials. Adam Rondinone conducts research in this field.
Narrator: Oak Ridge National Laboratory electrochemist Adam Rondinone describes his nanotechnology research and explains how it might help to address today’s energy challenges.
Rondinone: Nanotechnology is a field of material science where we take common materials that we know about in everyday life—plastics and metals and ceramics and things—and we make them very, very small, so that they start to take on the properties of molecules. And so, this is kind of the intersection of normal chemistry and material science or metallurgy.
And what’s interesting is when you take a normal material and you scale it down to something very, very small—a cluster of a few atoms, for example—it takes on new properties. In that sense, it becomes a new material.
And so, if we think about gold, gold is a classic example of this. Gold, as a metal, is so unreactive. We find it in nature as a metal. We make jewelry out of it. We coat our contacts with it for your high-definition audio headphones, so that they won’t corrode. Very, very unreactive. But as it turns out, if you take gold and you make it into a nanoparticle—that is, a clump of just a few atoms—it becomes a potent catalyst for chemical reactions. And this is just a great example of how we can take common materials that we know everything about pretty much at this point, change the scale to make them very small, and, really, it’s a whole new material.
My personal research is about how to take the principles of nanotechnology and solve energy problems. And so, we study a field of chemistry called electrochemistry. Electrochemistry is familiar to people in the form of batteries and fuel cells. We basically are developing new types of energy storage and conversion systems based on nanotechnology.
We’re best-known right now for a reaction that takes carbon dioxide, which is a pollutant, and converts it into ethanol, which is a commodity. And it does so at very high yield and high efficiency. And that process is actually being commercialized now.
Material science is the study of formulating new substances for particular applications, mainly on the molecular level. Gordon Fee, former manager of the Y-12 Plant, explains some of ORNL’s recent research in this field.
Narrator: Oak Ridge National Laboratory is responsible for many of the advances in material science, including the development of new materials and lighter vehicles using carbon fiber. Gordon Fee tells us more.
Gordon Fee: If you looked at what ORNL is really known for outside of the nuclear world, you’d get to materials. Their materials folks have invented a number of new materials. One of the examples we like to use for the University of Tennessee facts is that if you go into their basketball arena and you look up at the ceiling at their brand new LED lights, the mountings are all foam materials developed at Oak Ridge National Laboratory to keep the heat away from the building and the surroundings around the lights.
And so, ORNL started worrying about materials that could be exposed to the nuclear environment and used in the fuel rods that might go into a nuclear power plant. Today, we’re now working on carbon materials that make airplanes lighter and your automobile lighter using carbon technology, and I guess even recently signing an agreement to work on bicycles all made out of carbon fiber. So, there’s been a whole span of materials developed, starting at the nuclear arena, but expanding through new materials for truck engines, new materials for insulation, new materials for lightweight fabrication.