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Tiny magnets - what are they for?!

Tim Dreier

Epi. #23 | Meet the Curator | Tiny magnets - what are they for?!Pranoti | Tim
00:00 / 06:13

Postdoctoral Research Associate

Center for Integrated Nanotechnologies, Sandia National Laboratory

Epi. #24 | Meet the Curator | Tiny magnets - what are they for?!Pranoti | Tim
00:00 / 24:21

Please explain your research in simple words

I make tiny magnets to study how they behave, and how we can use them. In the past I've made polymers that contain tiny gold particles, and studied how gold forms ultra-tiny particles in solution.

Monday - Who I am, how I got here, where I work
Tuesday - Intro to magnetism from a novice, why we care about nanoscale magnets
Wednesday - More about spin, kinds of magnetic behavior, how we make our stuff, instruments
Thursday - Broader context for my career, my overall interests, why I have them
Friday - Related interests like 3D printing, composite materials, & hobbies
Saturday - Answer questions I've gotten in the week
Sunday - Summary of the week, maybe suggested reading.

What can the followers expect in your curation week?

How did you end up in your current research field?

By accident. I'm only sort of joking, I started out in graduate school as an organic chemist, and then changed groups at the halfway point. My dissertation ended up applying techniques from physical organic chemistry to questions in gold nanocluster chemistry. When I graduated, I took a postdoctoral position at Los Alamos for a bit over two years, and took my current position when that appointment ended. My present job is an area related to my previous work, but that I don't have a lot of experience in, so I'm learning all kinds of new stuff.

My research is entirely in making and understanding nanoscale particles - from the work I did in graduate school to the magnetic particles I'm making now. Mainly I work in two complementary fields - soft nanomaterial composites (ex. polymers containing nanoparticles) and nanoparticle synthesis. I work on making new materials, and I work on understanding how the reactions we use to make those materials work.

How and where does your research fall in the domain of materials/nano science?

Which research project are you most proud of and could you explain it in simple words in the section we call #InOtherwords?

It's been some time now, as it was published in late 2014, but my first project after changing groups back in graduate school. Essentially many researchers had claimed that a gold compound, Au25(SR)18 -- that's 25 gold atoms and 18 sulfur-containing organic ligands bonded in a unique way -- was a good catalyst. In a system that had been studied many times I was able to conclusively demonstrate that the Au25 broke apart before the desired reaction took place. With a pretty comprehensive set of experiments we showed that the compound decomposed and that individual gold atoms were responsible for the observed reactivity. I'm proud of it because it was a very thorough bit of work, and extremely definitive on the question it asked. I did a pretty simple experiment that nobody had reported and that gave us the first clue about what was happening, and hammered out the rest of it in six or eight weeks. A really great example of the combination of luck and quick thinking that defines a lot of what happens in science.

Right now, I'm very pleased! Overall, though:

1) management training for mentors

2) high pay & benefits for graduate students

3) an elimination of hero-worship in science.

If you had 3 wishes to improve your research experience, what would you ask for (not promising anything here!)?

What are you most looking forward to in the next 3 months?

I'm working on some really cool electronmicroscopy experiments with a microscopist here, I'm looking forward to getting the results from that while we have a really fancy loaner camera on the instrument.

Which challenges/questions is the nano/materials science field facing at the moment?

There are so many! For me, personally, I think one of the biggest challenges in nanoscience is our insufficient understanding of how reactions work. When you think about organic chemistry, for instance, in a lot of cases you can draw out a representation of the steps from start to finish atom-by-atom. "First this bond gets broken, then the electrons from over here come in and make a new bond..." etc. In a lot, I'd argue the majority, of nanoparticle syntheses we don't have the data to do that at the same level of detail. It makes a kind of sense, a 5 nm particle is HUGE on a molecular scale, there are about 4000 atoms in it if it's gold. That's a lot of bond forming events, so mapping out each of them is a really hard problem, but I think it's important for the future of materials design. If you understand how a reaction works, you understand how to play with it to get what you want to make out, and you can make predictions about what it will do.