April 06, 2004

Saikat Talapatra wins annual dissertation award

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- A doctoral student who studied one-dimensional matter has won Southern Illinois University Carbondale's annual outstanding dissertation award.

Saikat Talapatra's research focused on how such gases as hydrogen, methane, argon, xenon and neon form films the thickness of a single atom on the surfaces of bundles of super-small, super-strong cylinders of carbon atoms (structures scientists call "single-walled, carbon nanotubes"). His results not only advance basic scientific knowledge about the interaction of these gases with carbon nanomaterials but could assist engineers in developing a way to store alternative fuels -- which would revolutionize the transportation industry.

Talapatra will receive his $1,000 prize during Graduate School commencement exercises May 8. He is now a post-doctoral fellow in materials science and engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., working with one of the world's leading research groups in the pioneering field of nanomaterials.

Anthropologist Ronald D. Rich, currently an adjunct faculty member at Henry Ford Community College in Dearborn, Mich., was runner-up with a dissertation titled, "Pigs for the Investors: Commoditization, Differentiation and Personalism in Illinois Contract Hog Production."

Richard E. and Donna T. Falvo sponsor SIUC's dissertation competition, held annually since 1988.

Talapatra's prize-winning research garnered a number of letters of support from scientists in both physics and engineering, two fields that have worked extensively with carbon nanotubes since their discovery a decade ago.

Because carbon nanotubes are much, much longer than they are wide (by a factor of nearly 10,000) and because they are extremely narrow (less than one ten-millionth of an inch), scientists long have tried to determine whether in some way they behaved as if they were one-dimensional. Talapatra's work demonstrated that gases adsorbed on carbon nanotubes behaved as theorists expected one-dimensional matter to behave.

In a letter supporting Talapatra's nomination for the dissertation award, Milton W. Cole, distinguished professor of physics and of materials science and engineering at The Pennsylvania State University, wrote, "My work as a theoretical physicist has been particularly motivated by the idea of finding one-dimensional matter in the vicinity of nanotubes. We were absolutely thrilled to hear that Dr. Talapatra made the first clear experimental discovery of such one dimensional matter."

Cole called the work a "landmark contribution to science" and added, "It is rare in a scientist's career to make one discovery of such importance as this."

Aldo D. Migone, who chairs SIUC's physics department, noted that publications resulting from Talapatra's dissertation have received more than 100 citations from research groups worldwide.

"Citations are the most concrete and the best measure of the value and importance of a publication," he wrote in nominating Talapatra for the SIUC prize.

"The results from this dissertation have become the standard for similar experimental measurements on single-walled, carbon nanotubes."

Talapatra's findings have exciting implications in the search for a clean, abundant fuel that could replace petroleum. Hydrogen is a logical choice for such fuel, but lack of a cheap, safe means for storing it has proved a stumbling block in its adoption.

"In order to determine whether carbon nanotubes can provide the technological answer to this problem and to determine how to make gas storage in nanotubes the most effective it can be, it is imperative to establish where, how and under which conditions gases are adsorbed," Migone wrote.

"These are the types of questions addressed by Dr. Talapatra's dissertation."

Pulickel M. Ajayan, who heads the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute research group working with nanostructures, wrote that Talapatra's work on hydrogen storage "clarifies several issues related to conflicting reports of hydrogen storage."

He also noted that Talapatra's "pioneering research in understanding the adsorption behavior of gases on nanotube surfaces has led to a better understanding of the system, leading to faster development of nanotube-based devices in separation technologies."