Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Engineering
Houston, Texas, U.S.
- PhD (1989), Northwestern University (Materials Science and Engineering), Evanston, IL
- B. Tech (1985), Banaras Hindu University (Metallurgical Engineering), Varanasi, India
Pulickel M. Ajayan is the Benjamin M. and Mary Greenwood Anderson Professor in Engineering at Rice University. He teaches engineering courses at both the undergraduate and graduate levels, performs research, and mentors students and post-doctoral research fellows. He also is involved with outreach activities pertaining to Rice as well as the external research community.
Advice to Students:
“My advice would be to get deeply involved. And get involved early. There are many opportunities for early involvement – I get some very good high school students in my lab who come and get experience in nanotechnology research. There is a lot of information on the internet and such which can be used to learn about the exciting things that is happening in technology, especially nano.”
Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
Ajayan: My PhD thesis was focused on nanoparticles, although in the 1980’s these were called small particles or clusters rather than nanoparticles. The term ‘nano’ came to be popular in the early 90’s. I spent my post-doctoral stay at NEC corporation in Japan (1990-93), with the group responsible for the discovery of carbon nanotubes. I was involved in some of the very early and seminal works in the field. This cemented my career path in the area of nanotechnology.
Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?
Ajayan: I am involved in the research and development of nanomaterials with specific focus on carbon based nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes and graphene. Regarding applications, we are working on several areas such as energy storage (battery, supercapacitors), nanocomposites, membranes, electrical and electronic devices. The focus is on basic materials science.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
Ajayan: It is basically the realization that you are working at the frontier of science and technology – essentially manipulating atoms and molecules to build structures and devices – should be any scientist’s dream! Other special thing about nanotechnology is that it is so broad – nanotechnology is an enabling technology – and its use spans from materials science to biology to electronics. It is also very interdisciplinary and hence one tends to get to know the exciting things happening in several fields and work with experts in other fields, something not very common in other areas.
Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you’ve worked on has positively impacted the world?
Ajayan: I believe that several things I have worked on in nanotechnology will directly or indirectly influence future technologies. One example is the creation of a paper battery. Using nanomaterials, we were successful in assembling energy storage devices (battery and supercapacitors) on a flexible paper-like matrix. The idea that power can be distributed and put on platforms that can be form-fitted in several designs and geometries is bound to have an impact in the future. Another example is the work that we did in collaboration (with Prof. Shawn Lin at RPI) in creating the darkest material from array of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes. There could be many applications in optical technologies of the future based on this work. In addition, several of our works related to carbon nanotubes and composites will have long term applications. In addition to some of these applications, our work has also remained quite creative, and several young people have been motivated to take up (or remain in) science as a result.
Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?
Ajayan: Nanotechnology is a relatively new field. The real impact of this technology is only evolving and will only be felt in the future (may be a decade or two or even farther out). As I mentioned before, this is an enabling technology and will have its effect felt in many areas. To name a few, electronics, sensors, drug-delivery, bio-medical applications, energy conversion and storage, water purification, multi-functional nanocomposites etc. There already are limited commercial applications in areas such as energy storage, sensors etc. and the new generation of electronic devices have already reached the nano dimension.
Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future.
Ajayan: As I mentioned, there are several. Let me just pick one. Battery. This is an area where any advance is welcome as its use is widespread. The most innovative designs and developments in this technology relies on nanomaterials and nanotechnology. The new generation of electrode materials are nanomaterials since they provides higher energy and power delivery possibilities. If you take popular nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes, the present biggest volume applications exist in Li-ion battery. I think this will be an area strongly impacted by the advent of nanomaterials.
Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Ajayan: As an academic, it’s mostly team work. During my early life, I used to work alone and that was fun. Now I have a large group of students, post-docs and visitors and all the work is team work. We also collaborate with other groups around the world. Being such a diverse field (nanotechnology) one is forced to collaborate to get access to the best facilities and expertise.
Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?
Ajayan: We are continuously updating our expertise. We are basically materials people focused on the synthesis, processing and characterization of materials. We also do electrical and mechanical property evaluation. But we have gained expertise in several areas in the past years; for example, we work on electrochemical energy storage, electronic transport in nanoscale devices, water purification using nanoporous membranes etc. etc.
Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Ajayan: Of course. I am an electron microscopist by training and that gave me the right perspective of the nanoscale dimension. With time, you learn several other techniques and processes but your heart still remains with what you learned as a student. Our group is not involved in too much microscopy now and is mostly focused on designing and developing new materials. The microscopy techniques have become very sophisticated now; I still get excited when I see a work with nice electron microscopy study.
Q: Do you have a mentor? Did you in your college years?
Ajayan: You always need a mentor – whether that person is actively mentoring or have motivated you immensely with his/her contributions, approach
and personality. My advisors (PhD and post-doctoral) have both been inspiring and I owe them a lot for remaining in science. And then there are many others who inspire you through their work and I remain constantly excited seeing the beautiful things that is happening in science and technology.
Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
Ajayan: I would definitely do Science. And most probably nanotechnology with a more focus on bio related applications. It is just because I think the most profound things that are happening in science today are happening in the area of biotechnology and medicine. I feel sometimes a bit left out, not being able to take part in this bio-technology revolution. We have tried to do some things in the recent part to connect our work in nanotechnology to bio-related areas (like cancer therapy). It is not easy but I think we will try and do more in the future.
Q: What advice do you have for pre-university students?
Ajayan: My advice would be to get deeply involved. And get involved early. There are many opportunities for early involvement – I get some very good high school students in my lab who come and get experience in nanotechnology research. There is a lot of information on the internet and such which can be used to learn about the exciting things that is happening in technology, especially nano. Nano is fun as it deals with the smallest building blocks of everything and anything and manipulating these to get better materials. This is yet another frontier in the history of science (this one about size and the challenges associated with manipulating the smallest entities – atoms and molecules) and students should see it as an opportunity of their life-time to get involved. These are technologies that will become part of their life-style at some point. They should take an active role in getting involved and getting to know what is shaping their lives – nanotechnology!