A Pinpoint-Sized Catalyst - Exel: Drexel University's Research Magazine


A Pinpoint-Sized Catalyst
Drexel’s Yury Gogotsi has transformed the A.J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute into a world-class hub for studying science’s smallest frontier.

_Yury Gogotsi

Gogotsi is trustee chair professor of materials science and engineering and director of the A.J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute.

Beginning in the 1970s, some scientists promoted the idea that massive amounts of hydrogen, a renewable source of energy, could be stored in fuel cells made with newly discovered and highly promising carbon nanomaterials. A new generation of cars, trucks and boats would replace the gas-guzzling models of the day, it was believed, reducing the United States’ dependence on foreign oil and significantly improving the environment.

Those scientists gave their idea a catchy name: “The Hydrogen Economy.”

For politicians looking for a way to reduce soaring inflation caused in part by rising prices at the gas pump, the timing couldn’t have been better. Government money flowed freely into new hydrogen research projects. Fueled by private investment, the major American automobile manufacturers spent millions ramping up their research and development units.
Yet more than 40 years later, almost nobody is actually driving a hydrogen-powered car. The technology never materialized, it turns out, because the scientists greatly over-estimated the amount of juice they could realistically squeeze from the novel fuel cell.

Drexel’s Yury Gogotsi has spent his entire career studying materials science and is a leading figure in nanotechnology research. He’s also a student of history, and understands that science—for all of its great contributions to the world—is not without its faults. The hype that powered the imagined “Hydrogen Economy” is just one example.

“In many fields of science, whenever an emergency appears, there’s a lot of good work going on, but also a lot of hype. There are scientists who make unreasonable claims,” Gogotsi says.

Now, he worries, history may be about to repeat itself.

In a pointed perspective he recently co-authored for Science magazine with colleague Patrice Simon of the Université Paul Sabatier in Toulouse, France, Gogotsi argues researchers should pause and consider a new, standardized gauge to measure the performance of an emerging generation of energy storage devices that range from ones as small as those used in cell phones to ones as large as those used in the nation’s energy grid.

Gogotsi, a professor in Drexel’s department of materials science and engineering and director of the A.J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute, is chiefly concerned with the global race to build better “supercapacitors,” which are used now to power buses and trams and to open emergency doors on the world’s largest aircraft. Newly discovered nano-size materials used to build supercapacitors carry great potential for increasing their energy storage ability.

But Gogotsi worries that the current system for evaluating energy storage devices is insufficient and may not provide a complete picture of the devices’ actual capability. As happened with the hydrogen fuel cell, it’s entirely possible that the data assumptions made in the lab using small amounts of nanomaterials won’t hold up when production is scaled up, and the entire energy storage field could suffer.

“We needed to provide a reality check for the community. We need to work on a better technology, but we need to correctly evaluate the result. Otherwise the hype does more damage than good,” he warns.

If You Build It, They Will Come

Gogotsi’s Science magazine article has been well received in the materials science research community. It’s also helped further enhance the reputation of Drexel’s materials science and engineering department, already considered one of the best in the country.

“Publishing a paper in Science is like climbing Mount Everest,” Gogotsi says.

Growing up in Kiev, Ukraine, Gogotsi didn’t dream of climbing mountains. From the time of his first middle school chemistry class, he knew he wanted to be a scientist.

“I fell in love with science pretty early. It was really intuitive. I fell in love with chemistry. I couldn’t understand everything and I was very much excited and wanted to learn more,” he says. “I feel the same way now, many, many years later.”

Gogotsi earned his Ph.D. at Kiev Polytechnic Institute, Ukraine and continued his Materials Science training as a research assistant at the Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. Following fellowships in Germany, Japan and Norway, he accepted an assistant professor appointment in mechanical engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. When Drexel recruited him to jumpstart its fledgling nanotechnology program in 2000, he dispatched two of his graduate students to Philadelphia to check the lab space he’d been given. They returned with bad news: The facilities were too inadequate for them to complete their degrees, and they decided not to move with him.

“It just didn’t have necessary equipment for nanotechnology research,” he recalls. “There were no instruments.”
In 2002, when Gogotsi was named associate dean of the College of Engineering for Special Projects, he was given a mandate to build out a nanotechnology infrastructure. 
In February 2003, he founded and was appointed director of the A.J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute. Though somewhat of an uncommon practice, he also sought and was given courtesy appointments as professor of mechanical engineering and mechanics, and assistant professor of chemistry.

His first priority was to build a state-of-the-art lab with high-end research instruments, not just for his materials research, but for use among research scientists across many Drexel disciplines.

Today, the Centralized Research Facilities (CRF) provides access to advanced equipment for electron microscopy, vibrational spectroscopy, elemental analysis, X-ray diffraction, nanoindentation and micro fabrication.
To mechanical engineers and materials scientists, CRF was the equivalent of a “Field of Dreams”—once built, it attracted many new faculty members to Drexel. There are currently nearly 50 nanomaterials researchers at the university, and the materials science and engineering department was ranked No. 11 in the prestigious National Research Council (NRC) rankings, which came out last fall.

“This is very good for a small department,” Gogotsi says of the NRC ranking. “It just shows the result of the effort of the entire university community. I’m glad I was part of it and was able to contribute, and I hope the university will be able to keep the pace.”

The next big thing

Keeping pace means staying ahead of the field and anticipating where the research might be heading next. In the world of materials science, the latest craze is nano diamonds.

First discovered in the former Soviet Union in the 1960s, these tiny particles of carbon originate in the first milliseconds when TNT is detonated during controlled explosions in large containers. In black powder form, nanodiamonds bear little resemblance to precious bulk diamonds, but their value to scientists has steadily increased since the late 1990s.

Diamond nanoparticles have a broad range of existing applications. They are used as additives in high performance motor oil, where they act as a lubricant to decrease engine wear and noise and improve performance by increasing fuel consumption. Diamond nanoparticles also absorb sunlight very well, and they’ve been used to make better sunscreens. In comparison to other nanotechnologies, they are relatively inexpensive to make.

The greatest promise for nanodiamonds, however, may be their ability to deliver chemotherapy drugs to cancer cells without producing some of the negative effects common with today’s delivery agents. Diamond nanoparticles are nontoxic and non-inflammatory, and because they are so small—hundreds of thousands can fit on the tip of a pin—they are easily removed from the body.

“There has been some prominent work showing that cancer drugs can be much more efficiently delivered using diamond nanoparticles,” Gogotsi says. “We would like to lead this challenge and be among the first to develop applications for diamond particles.”

Biomedical applications must be clinically tested and are still a decade away, A.J. Drexel Nanotechnology Institute research assistant professor Vadym Mochalin estimates. But companies are working with his team on several more immediate and practical uses for nanodiamond particles. An example is ongoing work to develop the next generation of polymers for dissipating heat that builds up in increasingly small electronic devices and gadgets, so your iPod “doesn’t become a boiler plate” in your hand, Mochalin says.

“My interest is in trying to identify new materials which can make a difference and develop them, and to make Drexel a leader in this area of research,” he says.

Nanodiamond particle research is helping grow the Institute’s reputation, both at home and abroad. The Institute recently announced a collaboration with Shanghai Research Institute in China, sending M.S./Ph.D. student Amanda Pentecost there for six months to work on a nanodiamond particle agent capable of treating brain tumors. And the Institute’s nanodiamond group was invited to organize the first-ever dedicated symposium on nanodiamond particles at the Materials Research Society Meeting in San Francisco, Calif., the largest conference of its kind in the world. The group made nine oral and poster presentations.

“This, I think, shows Drexel is one of the leaders in this area of biomedical and composite applications of nanodiamonds,” Mochalin says.

Gogotsi says he appreciates the accolades and honors bestowed on him by his peers and others, but there’s little time to reflect on his past achievements. Balancing his responsibilities in the lab, in the classroom and as a student advisor is a daily struggle—“I’m never bored,” he says. But his life’s work has been spent building things—both big and impossibly small—and he has no plans of slowing down now.


Gogotsi’s early exposure to chemistry and the profound effect it had on him in part explains why he insists that community educational activities be a primary focus of the Nanotechnology Institute. In 2004, at his urging, Drexel applied for and received National Science Foundation funding to support a new program called Research Experiences for Teachers in the area of Nanotechnology.

“When I give talks in high schools,” he explains, “maybe one kid will get excited.” The classroom teachers, however, often were enthralled by his presentations.

“If we want to have good scientists, good engineers in the future, we must start the work early. And the best way to reach high school students is through teachers,” he says.

For seven weeks each summer, selected high school and community college teachers receive hands-on experience working in research laboratories at Drexel and the University of Pennsylvania. They attend lectures about nanotechnology and develop experiments and lesson plans to take back to their classrooms. The response from students has been overwhelmingly positive.

“It gets kids excited. It’s really an exciting opportunity to educate the younger generation and also re-train teachers to help them to bring advanced science into the classroom,” Gogotsi says. “I believe educational activity is really a very important part of the Nanotechnology Institute’s mission.”

In 2008, Gogotsi was appointed materials science and engineering trustee chair professor. Two years later, he was named Distinguished University Professor, one of only two Drexel faculty members to receive the annual honor. The title is bestowed upon full professors who “have distinguished themselves in their respective fields though research, scholarship, clinical innovation or creative work.”

Over the years, Gogotsi has mentored many young students, helping them focus their creative energies and shaping their careers, much the same way they manipulate the surface of the tiniest particles and molecules known to man. Mochalin has worked closely with Gogotsi for the last seven years.

“I’m very satisfied. I have learned a lot from him. Now I’m also teaching. I’ve adopted many of his methods of teaching,” Mochalin says. Despite the many professional hats he wears, Mochalin adds, Gogotsi “always provides any kind of help I ask for.”