About 30 years ago, an explosion rocked Dr. Ray H. Baughman’s laboratory at Allied Chemical. He and his team were trying to make a new form of carbon. Though the accident caused some minor injuries, it uncovered new insight into a material they were using. They shifted gears a bit, and from the accident Baughman was able to develop a visual indicator for vaccines that correlates time and temperature factors. If the label turns one color, the vaccine is good; if it turns another color, bad. The indicator has saved thousands of lives and inspired Baughman to work toward the betterment of mankind.
Baughman, who grew up on a turkey farm, has always loved science. After graduating from Carnegie Mellon and completing graduate school at Harvard, he worked at Allied Chemical, which later became Allied Signal and finally, Honeywell. He’d never planned to stay in the corporate industry—the original plan was to return to academia after a couple of years. “But I was having a lot of fun, making new materials and finding out what we could do with them. I loved the invention part of it,” he says. Over three decades at Allied, Baughman filed and received nearly 60 patents.
Space does not allow for the full story of how Dr. Da Hsuan (pronounced “Schwan”) Feng, vice president of research and economic development at UTD, lured Baughman away from the job he loved in New Jersey and landed him at UTD. (Although it’s worth telling, as it involves late-night e-mails on a New Year’s Eve and homemade biscuits.)
In 2001, Baughman accepted Feng’s offer to help create the UTD NanoTech Institute and serve as its director, bringing his good friend and right-hand-man Dr. Anvar Zakhidov with him. Along with Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dr. Alan MacDiarmid, the scientists have built the Institute into a world-renowned research facility. A staff of over 30 employees, students, and researchers work in six broad-ranging facilities for testing, imaging, and analysis at the Institute. But perhaps the most significant strides they’ve made have been in the field of carbon nanotubes.
Carbon nanotubes are the Swiss-Army knife of nanofibers. They conduct electricity, store energy, and possess certain optical and electronic properties useful in many applications. On a microscopic level, carbon nanotubes look like a cylindrical roll of chicken wire. On a weight basis, they’re 56 times stronger than steel in tensile strength—strong enough to imagine a space elevator—but much, much lighter.
Until recently, uses for the nanotubes have been much easier to come by than nanotubes themselves, as the process to make them had been difficult and expensive. Last August, Baughman’s team developed multi-wall carbon nanotube sheets, growing them like bamboo. These sheets are much less expensive to produce and can enable light-emitting displays, sensors, and more.
In March of 2006, the UTD NanoTech Institute successfully demonstrated carbon-nanotube-based artificial muscles that are 100 times stronger than the natural variety. Such muscles could be employed in robots without the need for extra power supplies, as well as used to design aircraft wings which could morph into desired configurations.
Baughman is tight-lipped about the next big thing to come out of the lab, except only to say that there is a tremendous application for carbon nanotubes in the energy industry.
Trust that Baughman has mankind’s best interest at heart.