Cindy Kelly: I’m Cindy Kelly, Atomic Heritage Foundation. It is Wednesday, April 25, 2018. Adam, would you please say and spell your name?
Adam Rondinone: Adam Justin Rondinone, A-d-a-m J-u-s-t-i-n Rondinone, R-o-n-d-i-n-o-n-e, and that’s Italian.
Kelly: Terrific. Adam, you’re here at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, and you must be a scientist. Why don’t you tell us something about your childhood, where you were born, and how you came to be a scientist?
Rondinone: I was actually born in a somewhat rural town in New Hampshire. I’ve always loved science, ever since I was a kid. In fact, I inherited my love of science from my parents. I think in a different life, my dad, who was a watchmaker, probably would have been a scientist. He just didn’t have that opportunity. But he was always interested in things that were mechanical and electronic. He taught me about those things ever since I was really just a little child, maybe five, six years old.
Then, at some point when I was a kid, they, my parents bought me a set of encyclopedias called "The Young Children’s Science Encyclopedia."
I did my graduate school at Georgia Tech. When I was a graduate student at Georgia Tech, I would actually come to Oak Ridge to do experiments as part of my graduate work. Oak Ridge has these facilities that we call “user facilities.” These are large science investments that the federal government makes, and makes these capabilities and these facilities open to anybody that wants to come here and use them to do science, as long they’re going to publish it in the open literature.
I would come here periodically as a graduate student and do my experiments, go back home, wrote up my thesis. When it came time to look for a job, Oak Ridge wanted me to come here, so I came here, and I’ve never really left.
Kelly: That’s fabulous. Tell us what you’re working on now.
Rondinone: My science is about nanotechnology. Nanotechnology is a field of material science where we take common materials that we know about in everyday life—plastics and metals and ceramics and things—and we make them very, very small, so that they start to take on the properties of molecules. This is kind of the intersection of normal chemistry and material science or metallurgy.
What’s interesting is, when you take a normal material and you scale it down to something very, very small—a cluster of a few atoms, for example—it takes on new properties. In that sense, it becomes a new material.
If we think about gold, gold is a classic example of this. Gold, as a metal, is so unreactive. We find it in nature as a metal. We make jewelry out of it. We coat our contacts with it for your high-definition audio headphones, so that they won’t corrode. Very, very unreactive. But as it turns out, if you take gold and you make it into a nanoparticle—that is, a clump of just a few atoms—it becomes a potent catalyst for chemical reactions. This is just a great example of how we can take common materials that we know everything about pretty much at this point, change the scale to make them very small, and really, it’s a whole new material.
We study nanotechnology. Then my personal research is about how to take the principles of nanotechnology and solve energy problems. We study a field of chemistry called electrochemistry. Electrochemistry is familiar to people in the form of batteries and fuel cells. We basically are developing new types of energy storage and conversion systems based on nanotechnology.
We’re best-known right now for a reaction that takes carbon dioxide, which is a pollutant, and converts it into ethanol, which is a commodity. It does so at very high yield and high efficiency. That process is actually being commercialized now.
Kelly: That’s very exciting. Tell us more.
Rondinone: We recently discovered a reaction where we can take nitrogen gas, which is in our atmosphere, and mix it with water and renewable electricity, and convert it into ammonia.
Kelly: Very much, it sounds like. You described the fact that you go to conferences and they’re very stimulating. Tell us about the sort of collaboration that happens in science today.
Rondinone: Science is a worldwide collaboration, which means that there are thousands of scientists all over the world who are constantly working with and competing against each other, in a somewhat friendly sense. We all want to be first, so we want to publish the paper that says that we made this discovery, and we’re going to get cited and known for that. Occasionally, we get lucky and we are first at something. Most of the time, we’re second, third or tenth.
We work together in a friendly way across borders. Governments recognize this. They fund us to do this, which is why we travel around the world—not so much around the world these days—but mostly in the United States. Every now and then we cross, we go to Europe.
The scientific enterprise is really meant to be beneficial for everybody. We tend to focus on basic science, which means that it’s prior to the application. A way of thinking about this is: an application for, say glass, is your cellphone. The basic science behind glass is, how do we take sand and purify it, and make it into glass? Once we figure out how to take and sand and purify it and make it into glass, and we share that knowledge, then that’s good for everybody.
Governments around the world invest in science with the recognition that the basic knowledge that we develop goes on to help everybody. Then, at some point, that basic knowledge gets picked up and it moves into an application. That might be something that becomes proprietary or secret, and we don’t want to share that, because it gives us an advantage.
But basic science, because it’s meant to help everybody, allows us to be collaborative. It allows us to work across borders. In my case, we’re funded by the federal government. But companies fund scientists, foundations fund scientists, other governments fund their scientists. We all get together and we share our results publicly. Sometimes, we’ll patent those results before we share them, but we’ll share them, and usually we’ll do this in a publication. We also get together in conferences, where we meet, we present, we talk, yell at each other, and ask questions. It’s a great opportunity to sort of cross-fertilize new ideas.
Kelly: The federal budget is under great scrutiny these days. What is the economic impact of publicly-funded science?
Rondinone: Congress funds scientific research in this country with the intent that it’s going to help everybody. The knowledge and the information that we discover, it gets reported and it gets reported in journals. In some cases, we put it out in the popular press. Occasionally, we’ll make a YouTube video and put that on the Internet. The idea behind it is that if the basic knowledge is discovered, then a company or a government or anybody can take that basic knowledge and use it to make some type of an application. Solve a problem, essentially. Solving problems makes peoples’ lives better.
Oftentimes, solving a problem gives us new economic opportunities. We might be able to found a new company and put people to work. In my case, where we’re looking at nanotechnology approaches to solving energy problems, the expectation is that if we’re wildly successful, ten years down the road we might be able to say, “Instead of drawing energy from fossil fuels, where we have to bring that up out of the ground, we can draw our energy from renewable sources such as windmills and solar panels.” Well, that’s an opportunity for renewable energy. It’s also an opportunity to minimize environmental impact.
Governments fund basic science with the intent of making peoples’ lives better, and making the economy stronger and more competitive.