ORNL
  
   
A closer view

Sean Smith

Sean Smith
Sean Smith

The Director of ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, came to ORNL from the University of Queensland in Australia where he was the Director of the Centre for Computational Molecular Science. His decision to take a new job half a world away was based on the enormous possibilities offered by the laboratory’s critical mass of research capabilities in several different areas of nanoscience. “Working at ORNL,” he says, “offers the opportunity to collaborate across a large scope of nanoscience and in activities that can potentially have a significant impact on society at large.”

We asked Smith about what’s behind the surge of interest in all things “nano” and how research at the nanoscience center impacts other research at the laboratory, as well as our everyday lives.

Nanotech has been hugely popular in the last few years. What about nanoscale phenomena makes them so interesting across a range of disciplines?

The essence of why nanotech is interesting to so many different disciplines is that many physical and even biological processes play out on a scale that falls between molecules and bulk materials. The nanoscale is that in-between space. It’s where we can see aggregations of molecules interacting in ways that can’t be explained from a bulk macroscopic point of view or from an atomic or molecular perspective. At the CNMS, we integrate these domains of knowledge by studying the structure and dynamics of what is happening on this intermediate scale.

Where can the average person see the benefits of nanotechnology?

I think the earliest applications of the technology that everyone could see were fabrics that had nanoparticles incorporated in them to strengthen them and to improve their flexibility. Nanoparticles have also found their way into cosmetics and sunscreens. Nanostructures, such as carbon nanofibers and nanotubes, have been incorporated into composite materials such as those in sporting and military equipment, automobiles and planes, to reinforce and strengthen while retaining lightness. Today, nanotechnology is being used to develop longer-lasting batteries for mobile phones, tablet computers and other portable appliances. Less obvious, but important from a quality-of-life perspective, are the nanoscience-enhanced catalytic materials used to filter air in the passenger cabins of airplanes. There are many nanoengineered products all around us, and we never even know they’re there.

Many ORNL research groups are doing research at the nanoscale. How do they interact with CNMS?

The most  common scenario for this kind of cooperation arises when a group needs access to an instrument at CNMS to gain new insights into the process or materials they’re working with. CNMS is a user facility, so like any other research group from any other institution, prospective ORNL users write a user proposal. The proposal goes through peer review and, as long as the science behind the proposal impresses the reviewers, it’s accepted and the research group is allocated time to come to the nanoscience center and work with our staff and equipment. Sometimes, if there are genuinely common research interests between users and the staff scientists at CNMS, we establish a formal collaboration. These collaborations often grow into research projects that involve our science program, users’ science programs, grant proposals, new funding and so on.

What kinds of research are your visiting scientists primarily interested in?

The big research drivers are energy and materials sciences. There is also an increasing amount of interest in the biological sciences because the medical applications of nanotechnology are potentially very important. The full spectrum of research interests we support is incredibly broad because our center supports many users from academia, and individual professors and universities are pursuing nanotechnology research in any number of areas.

Where do your users come from?

Although we have users from around the world, our users are primarily domestic. Because CNMS supports nanoscience research at ORNL, we have a lot of users from the laboratory. We also have many users from universities who want to get access to a specialized piece of
equipment or take advantage of our specialized skills. One of the things that distinguishes the Department of Energy’s five nanoscience centers from other nanoscience centers is that they have not only very specialized equipment but also staff scientists with an enormous amount
of skill and experience. As a result, some users come to CNMS not for the facilities but for the opportunity to work with our research staff.

What’s the biggest difference between leading CNMS and your previous job at the University of Queensland?

At the University of Queensland, I headed up a laboratory that focused on computational nanotechnology and nano-bio research. CNMS has a broader mandate, encompassing six groups with different domains of experimental activity in nanoscience. This gives me both the challenge and the opportunity to interface, in a much more  direct way, with a range of different experimental areas of nanoscience. It expands my horizons. It’s a challenge, and it’s a great reward to see interactions developing among these areas.

Where do you see nanotechnology having the most impact over the next few years?

I think nanotech will have the largest impact in energy and medicine. The next generation of batteries, supercapacitors and fuel cells will be critical to the ongoing development of our economy and to the sustainability of our energy demands. Nanoscience will drive advances in this area by enhancing the properties of the materials that go into these devices. Medical research at the nanoscale is going to be an area of keen interest, both because of its potential benefits or society and because it involves collaborative research among physical and material scientists, biologists and clinicians. Our experience suggests that, through this kind of cross-disciplinary interaction, questions are asked that wouldn’t be asked otherwise, and solutions are found that couldn’t be found in any single research domain.