recovery and carbon dioxide capture.
His early funding came from Dept. of Defense
laboratories, but eventually he caught the eye of
the NSF, and won a Presidential Young Investigator
Award for his work in polymers. But his lack of
success with funding from NIH compelled him to
move fully into organic materials synthesis.
From organometallic reactions, Tour progressed to polymeric creations, such as pol-yarylenes, polyphenylenes, flame-retardant
polymers and conjugated oligomers for electronics and optics. He also synthesized gram quantity
purifications of C60 and C70 using simple column chromatography. This work caught the eye
of leading nanotechnologists. Richard Smalley,
the discoverer of the carbon fullerene, invited
Tour to study at Rice Univ. In 1999, he moved to
the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology, one of the country’s premier locations for
A transition to nanoscience
At the R.E. Smalley Institute, Tour took an interest in organometallic reaction development, and
experimented heavily with carbon nanotubes,
molecular electronics and nanomachines. His
ability to understand the context of nanotechnology, he says, is an appreciation for the connection
between the nanoscale and macroscopic world
he gained in his polymer chemistry work. He
says polymer chemists often consider nanoscale
properties, which typically affect properties such
as toughness, electrical conductivity and biode-gradability in polymeric synthesis. This allows
them to transition more easily into the 1- to 100-
nm realm of the nanotechnologist.
What was new for him at Rice Univ. was the
need to work with non-chemists, such as engineers
and physicists, to help transition research into
technology. Tour also learned the power of bottom-up construction. Most technology has been
achieved by top-down approaches like fashioning
an axehead from an ingot that was cut from ore.
But biological processes are bottom-up and rely on
thermodynamically controlled assembly methods.
This molecular toolkit is what has fascinated Tour.
He is also involved in biotechnology, working
with medical experts to modify carbon nanotubes
to enable delivery. Though the fruits of such
research is still decades away, he is hopeful.
“We just published a paper on graphene
nanoribbon composites where we achieved a great
0.5-weight-percent solution in which we split
nanotubes longitudinally, then alkalated the edges,
allowing them to disperse beautifully,” says Tour.
Electronics is also important to the Tour
Research Group, and some of the biggest breakthroughs are occurring through joining graphene
with silicon oxides to create transparent superca-pacitors for use in batteries and fuel cells.
Research at Tour’s laboratory can seem frenetic,
but he does his best to keep his students focused.
“I meet with students twice a week, and every
one of them I look in the eye and determine what
they are working toward. I want to find out what
is driving each one, and I want to make sure they
are spending all of their time and intellectual
capability on it,” says Tour.
He invites 50 students a week into his home
for meals. In 2004, at one of these meals, several students were upstairs late playing Dance
Dance Revolution, a popular video game in
which players to tried keep up with complex
dance moves paired with popular music. This
now ubiquitous type of game gave Tour an idea,
which was driven home by his memory of his
wife learning the Book of Psalms through song.
One of the challenges he faced in the classroom was keeping the attention of students. He
reduced a chemistry chapter to 10 bullet points,
then recruited a professional Dance Dance Revolution competitor and a composer to develop
music and moves to go with the course material.
The program was a hit and eventually developed into an app on Apple’s i Tunes store. It has
been used by more than 40,000 teachers and
downloaded more than 1 million times. This success gave Tour other ideas, and after his success
in building both “nanocars” and “nanopeople”,
he decided to use these to form a NanoKids program that would help introduce young people
to concepts in nanotechnology. This eventually
reached 45,000 kids through a 3-D video that was
distributed throughout the country.
Part of what sets Tour apart as a researcher is
his ability for both self-reflection and the instinct
for finding all-encompassing answers. He is as apt
to ask a philosophical question as he is to tackle a
new idea in polymer chemistry, and his answers
have been thoughtful and challenging.
“The nice thing about organic chemistry is
that you can do it very quickly. In a few hours I
can have an answer to a question,” says Tour. He
recalls sitting in the library for hours, reading
about chemistry. “If I were to do this in any other
occupation, people would think ‘What a slouch’.
But to get away and think about a project for an
hour, and not answer text messages, this allows
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