Making a Material Difference with Carbon Nanotubes

BARATUNDE COLA IN HIS LAB. CREDIT: MARSHA WALTONEngineer and entrepreneur Baratunde Cola believes that big changes in human achievement are underpinned by revolutions in materials, from the stone age to the iron age to oil to silicon.

“If you trace the dramatic transformations in how we live, there is some new material that is discovered or invented that is at the root of that. And so I got convinced as an undergrad that this carbon nanotube looked to be the silicon of the 21st century. It was the new material that everything would be built on,” he said.

Cola, associate professor in the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology, believes he was in the right place at the right time to be exposed to this exciting new material.

The range of uses for carbon nanotubes is vast, from lighter weight bullet-proof vests, to huge consumer conveniences, like making iPhones and laptops more affordable and reliable through dissipating heat.

And there are defense applications, such as improving national security with more capable radar systems. His first grant at Georgia Tech was from DARPA and Raytheon, designed to use carbon nanotubes to improve the thermal management of radar systems.

“For every degree of temperature that you can lower in the electronics that underpin the radar system…you can see a hundred yards or so further into enemy space,” said Cola. “So thermal management is intimately coupled with an ability to detect and deter threats.”

The success of this research launched a company called Carbice at the Georgia Tech Advanced Technology Development Center.

Cola’s skill at making things work started early. He’s the youngest of three children, but even in elementary school he was the one adults with technical challenges sought out.

“In second grade I was the official ‘go to’ person in my family for replacing ceiling fans, or anything that came to the house that needed assembling, “ said Cola.

As early as kindergarten, his father, Anthony Cola, challenged him with math games and quizzes.

“He’s always been the most impressive person in my life. He went from selling underwear and doing all sorts of street hustling, to deciding he was going to change his life and go to school.”

The elder Cola earned an engineering degree at City College in New York and became a mechanical engineer at Westinghouse and Ford Motor Company.

“So he had a good experience. And he wanted to share that with me,” said Cola.

This professor’s passion for teaching and engineering are matched by his success as an entrepreneur, inspired by his mother Angela,  who spent most of her career as a special education programs manager as a civilian for the Navy.

“Her expertise was being a good people person, standing up for what she thinks is right, and always being the first to raise her hand and take on responsibility,” he said.

So he began his doctoral studies at Purdue University with a keen eye toward business as well as academics.

“I was an entrepreneur before I was a professor. In high school I had businesses; I started an engineering software company between my master’s and Ph.D. I was in real estate investment, and I also worked in politics,” he said.

Cola said it took about nine years to go from solving the the basic science challenge of creating a new standard of thermal material for the aerospace and defense market, to having a product that aerospace companies are buying today.

The product Carbice perfected and released in 2017 is a carbon nanotube “space tape” that can be used on satellites and other spacecraft to protect critical electronics inside. It can replace a messy glue that had been the industry standard.

“The tape is five times more thermally conductive, which means you can shrink the size of your satellite, which shrinks the cost of launch, and the cost of operation in general. Or you can add more functionality, to do more things when you are up in space,” he said.

Another of his research efforts, the optical rectenna, is likely to be of great value for long term space exploration.

Using carbon nanotubes that act as antennas to capture light from the sun, the device combines the functions of an antenna and a rectifier diode to convert light directly into DC current, ultimately a new way to efficiently capture solar energy.

“I’m pretty realistic about the carbon nanotube rectenna as a solar cell. I see that as the technology for the Moon, or Mars, for the next planetary settlement for humans,” he said.

Cola said the advanced manufacturing of products made from carbon nanotubes can be an inspiration for workers at every level. An employee who assembles clothing or packages cereal is rewarded with a paycheck. But workers who create products with carbon nanotubes can get much more.

“You put them in a factory where they are making nanotechnology, if that person stays working as a technician for the rest of their lives, their children, just via that exposure, will be more motivated and excited to do things in science and engineering,” he said.  

The Carbice company motto is “Achieve More with Confidence.” Cola said that’s especially important in minority communities.

“My outreach is geared toward empowering people to have confidence. I want to do this for kids in neighborhoods where there’s no good reason for them to be confident,” he said.

But promoting science and technology is not always an easy sell, especially in neighborhoods with more fundamental needs.

For many in the black community, Cola said, the early space program was considered a waste of resources. He quoted a 1970 song by Gil Scott-Heron including the lyrics, “My sister Nell got bit by a rat, but whitey’s on the moon.”

“I’m sharing that from the standpoint that, unless you get people to understand that they can both live well and attack big challenges, like space, or saving the environment, it’s not sustainable in my opinion,” said Cola.

“I don’t want to preach and teach. I want us to collaborate. I fundamentally believe that everybody has something that they are interested in that they are good at that they like. Whatever it is I will show them how my science relates. Then we meet at a common place,” he said.

He has worked with K-12 teachers and students in outreach projects that introduce them to the concepts of nanotechnology. And Cola is inspired by what he sees.

“There is an unbridled creativity and fearlessness in middle school. That is the group I want to touch with nanotechnology. In their hands, I think it will be transformative,” he said.

- Marsha Walton, American Association for the Advancement of Science