Triumphs in Everyday Life
NSF supported many of the pioneers whose investigative triumphs
led to innovations that are now part of everyday life. One
example is Art Heuer of Case Western Reserve University,
whose research on transformation toughening in ceramics led
to a way of producing
strong ceramics capable of operating and surviving in extremely demanding
environments. As ceramics cool after firing, their tiny constituent
particles expand slightly and cause occasional microcracks. To reduce
the risk of cracking, the particles that make up the ceramics must be
extremely smallon the order of one micron. Using zirconium dioxide-based
ceramics, Heuer and others were able to prevent cracking by using
appropriate processing to control the expansion of the particles
during cooling. To the delight of the automotive industry, these
tough ceramics, when integrated into catalytic converters, also
increased gas mileage.
Many other founders of modern-day materials science have been longtime recipients of NSF support. Alan MacDiarmid of the University of Pennsylvania and Alan Heeger of the University of California at Santa Barbara are considered the fathers of conducting polymers, or synthetic metals. MacDiarmid, a chemist, and Heeger, a physicist, were the first to demonstrate that conjugated, or paired, polymers such as polyacetylene can be "doped," or intentionally changed to the metallic state. The process of doping involves introducing into a substance an additive or impurity that produces a specific and deliberate change in the substance itself. Their work stimulated research worldwide on metallic organic polymers; applications include rechargeable batteries, electromagnetic interference shielding, and corrosion inhibition. Heeger, MacDiarmid, and Japanese researcher Hideki Shirakawa were awarded the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery and development of conductive polymers. Another longtime NSF grantee is Richard Stein, who established the highly respected Polymer Research Institute at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and is known for developing unique methods for studying properties of plastic films, fibers, and rubbers.
One of NSF's best known principal investigators is Richard Smalley of Rice University, who in 1985 discovered a new form of carbon with astounding properties and potential for useful applications. The Buckminsterfullerene, named for the American architect R. Buckminster Fuller, is a hollow cluster of 60 carbon atoms that resembles one of Fuller's geodesic domes. It is the third known form of pure carbon, the first two being graphite and diamond, and is the most spherical and symmetrical large molecule known to exist. "Buckyballs," for which Smalley and his colleagues Harold W. Kroto and Robert F. Curl received the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1996, are exceedingly rugged and very stable, capable of surviving the temperature extremes of outer space. Numerous applications have been proposed, including optical devices, chemical sensors and chemical separation devices, batteries, and other electrochemical applications such as hydrogen storage media. In addition, medical fields are testing water-soluble buckyballs, with very promising results. The soccer-ball-shaped form of carbon has been found to have the potential to shield nerve cells from many different types of damage including stroke, head trauma, Lou Gehrig's disease, and possibly Alzheimer's disease.