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.
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.