Robert D. Cormia
Physical Science Engineering and Mathematics division
Los Altos Hills, California, US
- BA Biochemistry Cal State Hayward 1977
Robert develops and delivers curriculum in nanoscience and clean energy technology, and supports student interns at NASA-Ames.
Advice to Students:
Internships are an essential component of your education, so try to find one to pursue. It helps you get into research groups easier, and gives you a significant competitive advantage in securing employment.
Q: When did you first find that your career path focused on nanotechnology?
Cormia: In the early 1990s I was a surface scientist in a commercial materials characterization lab. Much of my work involved working with, and analyzing materials at the nanoscale. After reading Engines of Creation, I became interested in how nanomaterials engineering could someday develop new materials, with novel properties, for advanced applications (energy, biomedicine, transportation, etc.). Also interested in developing new analytical tools to characterize materials, elucidate structure-property relationships, and optimize process development of nanostructured materials.
Q: What current nanotechnology applications are you working on?
Cormia: A newer form of nanocarbon, Nano Onion-Like Fullerenes, made using a novel process, and heat treated to increase the degree of graphitic character. Also assisting in characterization of vertical graphene, a project led by a colleague at NASA-Ames, and a related project using graph theory as a guide to understanding how the geometrical patterns in graphene and fullerenes, called chirality, are related to process conditions, such as chemical vapor deposition. If we can better understand how to control chirality, we can both engineer and control physical properties, e.g. electrical and thermal conductivity, bandgap, and mechanical strength, etc.
Q: What’s the most rewarding thing about working with nanotechnology?
Cormia: Two things. First, as an educator, is helping students, especially younger college and high school students, learn about a new world of materials, material structure and properties, and how to engineer new materials for advanced applications that are of interest to them. Second, and related to the first, is working with teams of students to characterize materials, and develop new insights into structure, properties, etc., using advanced analytical techniques. This has been our goal and practice with our student interns at NASA-Ames.
Q: Is there an example you can provide that shows how something you’ve worked on has positively impacted the world?
Cormia:Characterization of nano-onion like fullerenes (NOLFs), using XPS (X-Ray Photoelectron Spectroscopy) TEM (Transmission Electron Microscopy) and Raman Spectroscopy, helped in process optimization for a group back east. Combined with ESR (Electron Spin Resonance) we were able to identify process parameters that led to the highest performance (best physical properties) material. In related work, we applied XPS and Raman to the understanding of process conditions leading to production of vertical graphene. In the future, we plan to integrate graph theory to elucidation of process => structure relationships, the prelude to structure => property relationships, and part of our integrated materials engineering rubric.
Q: What do you think is the single greatest impact nanotechnology has had on the world thus far?
Cormia: Development of semiconductor technology is by far the most significant. The progression from micro to nanotechnology, engineering of semiconductor materials, and the initial steps into quantum computing, are transformative to civilization, as information technology is the foundation of our scientific tools and data analysis, our understanding of the world, and our ability to explore new fields and territories, and extending our health and longevity.
Q: Please give an example of what you envision nanotechnology applications leading to in the future.
Cormia: Three key applications come to mind. The first, mentioned above, is in information technology, where quantum computing will certainly lead to quantum leaps (bad pun intended) in our ability to store, process, and communicate data. A second area is smart materials, where integration of process into structure, harnessing self-assembly, will lead to a new class of materials and applications. Third, biomimetic nanotechnology, will enable humans to both learn from nature, as well as integrate some of nature’s intelligence, into materials that are easier to fabricate, have lower embedded energy and toxicity, and can be recycled and repurposed.
Q: Do you find yourself working more in a team situation, or more alone?
Cormia: A combination of both. I am by nature a blend of introvert and extrovert, and enjoy studying, learning, modeling, analyzing, by myself, but integrating that into a team project. Educators understand this well, we work (countless hours) alone, but revel in the social excitement of the classroom learning environment.
Q: If you work more as a team, what are some of the other areas of expertise of your team members?
Cormia: Teams I work with at NASA have fabrication and engineering skills (I am a scientist/analyst) and we work together closely in materials engineering. In one such team we developed a gradient thin film comprising a two phase nanostructure using CVD (Chemical Vapor Deposition). In another area, unrelated to materials science, we are developing a dynamic systems model of climate, as a self-organized (earth systems) response to orbital mechanics (Milankovitch cycles). We are a team of an astronomer/physicist/mathematician, working with a mathematician (and nanosystems modeler). My role is “conceptual integrator” of math and earth systems science, with an eye toward dissemination of a new conceptual understanding of climate systems and processes, to the broader scientific community.
Q: Did your university training help you in your nanotechnology work?
Cormia: In graduate school, yes, materials science was more interesting than chemistry, so I shifted direction in my studies. But experience and practice with surface analysis really got me interested in the nanoworld. That all occurred during the decade of Drexler and Smalley.
Q: Were you interested in science or engineering as a child? What was your experience then?
Cormia: Yes. My dad was a scientist and brought experiments home, one was to model atomic diffusion. He also worked in chemical vapor deposition, and probably made graphene (or polyacetylene) decades before anyone else. I enjoyed science in school, and generally did well with it. I also grew up right during our race to the moon, and that figured strongly in my interest in science.
Q: If you had to do it all over again, would you still focus on nanotechnology applications?
Cormia: I would have studied materials science earlier in college, and tried to integrate it into my chemistry education (undergrad) and then flipped it in graduate school (less chemistry, more materials). Would also have benefitted from general engineering courses. All in all, I’m happy with this field, and happy with how we work together in teams to develop materials and solve problems.
Q: If a high school or college student was interested in nanotechnology, what advice would you give them to help prepare take on those roles?
Cormia: I teach high school nanoscience, and the career advice I ALWAYS give to students is to think dual major, or at least a minor, and blend chemistry, materials science, and/or engineering studies, and find a good application space, like electrical engineering, biomedical device, thin films, clean energy, etc. Internships are another essential component of your education, so try to find one to pursue. It helps you get into research groups easier, and gives you a significant competitive advantage in securing employment.