MARKET: It's a Small World (2008)

To seafarers sailing in deep water in the middle of the ocean, a tidal wave is virtually undetectable. A sudden shift of the earth undersea sends great pulses of energy across the water, and they pass unfelt under a ship's hull only to reveal their power at some distant point onshore.

Seismic shifts in science roll across time in similar fashion. Sloppy housekeeping in Alexander Fleming's laboratory led him to unearth penicillin in 1928—a chance discovery that decades later revolutionized medicine. Physicist Max Planck theorized about quanta of energy in 1900, not realizing that he was giving birth to a branch of physics that would lead us to modern chemistry, nuclear physics and iPods.

Somewhere, maybe today, the next wave of scientific discovery is quietly propagating. Will the next innovation to rock our world and marketplaces be spun from threads of carbon atoms woven into super-lightweight sheets of fibers stronger than steel and 1,000 times better at conducting electricity than copper? Fifty years from now will we be coddled by tippling robots whose artificial muscles are made of elastic metals that draw energy from alcohol? Will our electrical grid pull power from devices that convert waste heat from manufacturing processes?

If Dr. Ray Baughman and the team of researchers and students he directs at the Alan G. MacDiarmid NanoTech Institute at the University of Texas at Dallas have their way, the answer is yes to all of the above. In spare, fluorescent-lit labs on UTD's Richardson campus, Baughman and his fellow scientists from across the world are probing the very small world of nanotechnology, shoving about and rearranging materials at the molecular level to create "biomimetic" materials that imitate nature, to weave wonder fibers or to build new fuel cells to harvest energy, among other potential creations.

Maybe they should start by mining energy from Baughman himself. A frequent world traveler and tireless proselytizer for nanotech, Baughman's words skip like stones across a pond as he quickly shifts topics while leading a visitor through a quick-paced walk through the institute. Two themes ring clear through the rapid patter: America needs trained minds to undertake the institute's research, and Baughman wants those minds to be Texan—even if they are, like Baughman, adoptive Texans.

"Right now we're in crisis," he says. "Americans are not going into the sciences."

To compound the problem, security worries after 9/11 have put up barriers to immigration that are keeping some of the best-trained minds at home in places like India and China, which are challenging the United States for leadership in research.

"We're a nation of immigrants," Baughman says. "We've been fed bright people from all around the world, and that's not happening now."

Nevertheless, the institute draws students and researchers from Korea, Spain, Ukraine, Ireland, the Philippines and Brazil, among other places, and Baughman is particularly proud of its NanoExplorers program, which since its launch in 2002 has trained about 35 high school students, who took part in original research under the institute's guidance.

Originality and curiosity are hallmarks of young and innovative minds. Those who struggled through high school math and chemistry might consider science the worst sort of drudgery—especially if they never had a teacher like Baughman, who bubbles with the creative vigor that fuels science's "eureka!" moments. Shifting about his office, reaching among reams of paperwork for patent applications on the shelves, he pulls down a collection of toys and knickknacks: a vase made of sticks woven in a loose-hinged netlike pattern that expands laterally as it's stretched, which he picked up at a restaurant in Sicily; a Mexican bowl cut in a flexible spiral from a single piece of wood; a springy animal toy from Australia whose head turns as its body stretches.

To Baughman and the institute's students, the curios suggest ways of arranging molecular structures to create new types of materials and artificial muscles that replicate nature. Of course, motion requires energy, and finding new ways to capture, store and convert energy is high on the institute's list of priorities.

"Our programs are focused to what we believe are important needs. The energy crisis, of course, is paramount," says Baughman, who earned a doctorate from Harvard and worked in private industry for 31 years before making Texas his home seven years ago. He's since become an enthusiastic booster of the Lone Star State, persuading three of his four daughters to settle in the state by singing "Deep in the Heart of Texas" to them, he says.

"Texas has in the past been and is now the energy state," Baughman says. "To be the energy state in the future will mean more than it used to be in the sense of having oil in the ground and the technology to get oil from the ground. Our nanotechnology programs in energetics are designed to help Texas always be the energy state."

Laudable goal, but it leads to some obvious questions: What will the next great innovative nanotech device be, and when can we buy it?

Baughman can't say, so we ask the next-best question: Does he feel that he's riding the edge of the next great wave of science?

He smiles.

"I feel like that," he says. "But I also felt like that 20 years ago."

Even then, he was right. Patrick Williams


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