Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Fall MRS Meeting 2011: Analogies, highlights and trivia

I’ve spent the last week in, as Ros Daw described on Wednesday, a relatively balmy Boston, mooching around the halls of the Hynes Convention Center and the Sheraton diving in to whichever session of the Materials Research Society meeting took my fancy. Unfortunately, there’s now a very cold bite to the air in New England but thankfully I’m on my way home to the Old England.

It was my first MRS meeting but, being a bit of an ACS meeting veteran, I was expecting something very similar to that but smaller, like an MRS slider to the ACS Big Mac, if you will. And that’s exactly what I found: you have a convention center with lots of parallel sessions, a nearby hotel housing some more sessions, and an Exhibition Hall with lots of people trying to sell stuff. But (dropping the burger analogy for a scientific one), like the nanomaterials discussed in many of the sessions this week, because of confinement effects, the properties of a meeting are not linearly related to their size.

With a smaller meeting (6000 attendees rather than >10,000 seen at ACS meetings) comes the benefit of a smaller meeting space, which leads to a much more ‘intimate’ event. Intimate is probably not the right word with 6000 people involved but if you know someone here then you’re very likely to see them, which in my experience is not how something of the size of the ACS meeting works. It also makes it far easier to go to numerous sessions on a given morning or afternoon, which, given the diverse interests of academics these days, is a big benefit. So I think that this is a perfectly-sized meeting and I gather from the attendees that I met, who keep coming back, that they do too.

There have been a few highlights for me over the week. The symposium on ‘Organic photovoltaic devices’ was my default pick for whenever I was unsure where to go, I was always likely to find something to hold my interest there.

During the meeting, Z.L. Wang (Georgia Tech) received a MRS medal for his work on ZnO nanomaterials, and therefore gave an associated presentation. The goal of much of his ZnO nanowire research is to harvest mechanical energy. Therefore when we do stuff — walk around, work out, move our fingers to play sports games on Xbox — those movements could be used to generate enough power to charge your iPhone or any other portable device. The nanowires are piezoelectric; that is, they generate a voltage when they are bent, and Wang has been working towards improving their efficiency to make them viable for various industrial applications.

This week I saw another take on the same problem when Tom Krupenkin from the University of Wisconsin-Madison discussed his recent work (published in Nature Communications) on using ‘reverse electrowetting’ to harvest energy. At this point I was going to give you a lovely description of how it works, but it seems Katharine Sanderson has already done it over at Nature News. So very briefly, a conductive liquid, if placed on an electrode, can be deformed by charging the electrode surface. This improves the electrode’s wettability and allows the droplet to spread out better. This can also be done in reverse: if you are able to physically deform a droplet on the surface of an electrode (by movement), you can create a charge and thus power. Krupenkin was able to apply this principal to an array of 150 droplets and talked about the possibility of placing such generators in to the heels of shoes. It was a nice talk and I recommend reading more at Nature News and Nature Communications.

I also enjoyed the presentation given by Paul Alivisatos very much. His talk was to celebrate his Von Hippel Award, the highest honour at the MRS society and was nicely balanced between anecdote and cutting-edge science. As a student at the turn of the century working on a completely different topic, I wasn’t particularly aware of the synthetic work of Alivisatos, but that soon changed when I started working for the Journal of Materials Chemistry at the Royal Society of Chemistry; every other paper I read involved the synthesis of nanoparticles, with chemists showing how it was possible to control their size or shape. Given that that was my introduction to the field and that now you can dial up many different structures and sizes, it was nice to go back to the beginning and hear a few tales from when it wasn’t quite so easy (Alivisatos was actually warned off working with them by a theorist colleague!).

And so my one bit of chemistry trivia to give you all comes from Alivisatos. So you know those ‘nanocrystal molecules’ that Alivisatos and his colleagues made by joining nanoparticles together using DNA links? You know whose idea the DNA was? No? Well it was Stanley Miller, of origin of life/amino acid fame! Alivisatos was asked to give a talk by UC Irvine students with the theme “what would you like to be able to do but can’t”. He mentioned the idea of linking nanoparticles together and that they were working on some organic compounds to do just that. Miller was in the audience and apparently put his hand up and said they should try DNA, the rest, as they say, is history. I just looked at the Letter in Nature and there is indeed an acknowledgment to S. Miller.

It might be a little too soon for me to go to the San Fran MRS meeting next Spring but I’ll certainly be thinking about returning next Fall.

Gavin

Gavin Armstrong

Senior Editor

Nature Chemistry

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