Nanotubes: Mighty, Minuscule Molecules Targeted Through Navy Research Funding

March 04, 1998

UNC-CH News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- After a stiff national competition, the U.S. Office of Naval Research has awarded a $5.6 million, five-year grant to 12 scientists at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and three colleagues at N.C. State University.

The researchers, who are studying large molecules known as nanotubes, will conduct experiments on nanotube-based materials through the N.C. Center for Nanoscale Materials, based on the Chapel Hill campus. They also will collaborate with MCNC, formerly known as the Microelectronics Center of North Carolina, in Research Triangle Park.

Drs. Sean Washburn, Lyle V. Jones professor, and Otto Z. Zhou, assistant professor, both of physics and astronomy at UNC-CH, will be principal investigators for the grant, which also will involve chemists and computer scientists. Ten of the researchers are members of the university's new materials science program.

"We will manipulate and study properties of big molecules known as Fullerenes that are made of carbon," Washburn said. "This is a one-of-a-kind grant that we won in competition with some really good people with a Nobel prize and lots of money behind them. We are fortunate and exhilarated by this."

Applications of nanotubes are the stuff day dreams are made of, the physicist said.

"Like spider webs, pound for pound these molecules are stronger than anything people build with now, including steel cables," Washburn said. "Mother Nature has done us another favor, and we just have to figure out how to take advantage of it."

Others involved include Drs. Richard Superfine, Laurie McNeil, Frank Tsui, Yue Wu, John Boland, Joseph M. DeSimone, Edward T. Samulski, Russell M. Taylor, Stephen M. Pizer and Jianping Lu, all at UNC-CH, and Drs. Christopher Roland, Jerry Bernholc and Donald Brenner of NC State.

"Even before one of our faculty members built the first college astronomical observatory in the United States in 1831, the University of North Carolina was becoming a center for the study of physics and astronomy," said UNC-CH Chancellor Michael Hooker. "It is a great pleasure -- but no surprise -- that this long tradition continues in a very exciting way. Before long, these materials with their astounding properties will make life better in ways we can only guess at now."

The N.C. Center for Nanoscale Materials won the award on the strength of broad inventive scientific goals and industrially useful targets, Zhou said.

"Our scientific themes include detailed understanding of the chemical, mechanical and electrical properties on these very long molecules, which exceed the strength of commercial materials," he said. "Upon adding extra atoms for storing electrical charge, the nanotubes are expected to be a very compact energy storage medium for batteries."

Extremely sharp ends of the molecules might provide raw material for the next generation of video displays, Zhou added. The grant also will provide broad educational and research opportunities for science students.

Dr. Thomas B. Clegg, V. Lee Bounds professor and chair of physics and astronomy at UNC-CH, said the award confirmed the quality of recently hired condensed matter physics and materials science faculty at the university.

"Professors Washburn, Zhou and their colleagues who won this center award have complementary skills, which have meshed into a very productive team effort," Clegg said. "They have really hit the ground running here. We look forward to seeing results from the exciting research they have proposed."

Note: Washburn and Zhou can be reached at (919) 962-9382 and 962-3297, respectively.
Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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