The Huge Little World of
ant to know what the future will be like? Professor Fotios Papadimitrak opoulos can give you a glimpse.
Many of the technological advances of tomorrow will be taking place in what he calls the "Nanocosmos," a world where scientists are already creating unbelievably small tools. THe University's Insitute of Materials Science, for instance, can already produce pinhole-free films, one millionth the width of a hair, that light up when they are exposed to an electric charge. And Papadimitrako poulos and his coleagues know how to fabricate nano-sized powders so fine that with 10 grams (about the weight of an orange), you could cover the entire surface of the Earth. s
Within 50 years, he says, they'll be able to put the contents
of the Library of Congress into a space the size of a pencil
dot. It may happen even sooner.
It is in this latter role that he is putting his skills to their most productive use. Papadimitrakopoulos is one of a handful of the nation's leaders in the realm of nanotechnology, the creation of incredibly small tools and products. The future of that technology is as difficult to imagine as the infinitesimal devices its practitioners produce.
A native of Greece, Papadimitrakopoulos says he was captivated by science from childhood. The notion of transforming materials, making them more useful, seized his imagination early and became an idea he never stopped playing with.
In 1987, after earning a B.S. degree in chemistry from the National University of Athens, he joined the Department of Polymer Science & Engineering at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst as a research assistant, while completing his master's degree in polymer science and engineering. But it was not until he accepted a post-doctoral position at AT&T Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, he says, that he experienced a powerful paradigm shift.
"At AT&T Bell Labs I began working with what I knew about chemistry and materials and applying it to the development of small tools," he says. "It completely changed the way I thought about chemistry and materials. The idea of applying chemistry for communication or electrical engineering was very exciting to me."
So was the company's collegial environment, in which he found
himself collaborating on inventions with professionals representing
a wide range of disciplines. By 1994, after two years at AT&T
Bell Labs, during which he completed his Ph.D. in polymer science
and engineering (also at the University of Massachusetts), he
was the ideal candidate to fill a slot in the Institute of Materials
Science's polymer program, which offered the same sort of interdiscipli
nary approach to research.
The potential for these tools is enormous. One area of promising research, for instance, focuses on organic light-emitting diodes, tiny devices made up of two organic layers sandwiched between electrodes, which function so efficiently that they make many heretofore unimaginable products possible.
"Imagine a future where the walls in your home emit a smoothing light," says Papadimitrakopoulos. "No shadows. No unseemly reflections. Color and brightness can be adjusted to suit your mood. Imagine a television made from a thin sheet of glass or plastic, which can hang on your wall. Imagine a cell phone the size of a ballpoint pen, where you can pull out a rolled up display screen, with vibrant colors and unparalleled resolution. Imagine your car windshield with the console panel display incorporated in the glass."
Those, and other futuristic tools, are not only possible thanks to the research of Papadimitrakopoulos and other nano-scientists, they are going to happen very soon. Indeed, over 14 million units of large projection displays using the technology were sold last year and the market is predicted to more than double by 2003. Within five years, says Papadimitrakopoulos, the market for organic light-emitting diodes is expected to reach $1 billion. And that's just scratching the surface.
From creating the Nanomaterials Optoelectronics Laboratory, Papadimitrakopoulos, who was simultaneously developing solid credentials as a teacher, went on to help the IMS develop and, more importantly, find funding for specialized research programs in polymers and biosystems (a field that explores the design, synthesis, engineering, testing and application of polymers in environmentally friendly and biocompatible ways) and carbon nanotube electrochemical actuators, which are used for robotics applications.
He proved so adroit at finding funding, indeed, that Harris Marcus, professor and director of IMS, tapped him as associate director this year. "He's a very dynamic young man," says Marcus. "In the field of materials he is one of the true rising stars. He's highly visible. He constantly seeks out collaborations and joint programs with other universities across America that help to enhance the reputation of the IMS and UConn in general. He's very serious about his work and he has boundless imagination. He brings great enthusiasm to the Institute and a drive to move our research a step up."
For Papadimitrakopoulos, the IMS presents exceptional opportunities to put his training to productive work. But he is quick to assert that in some respects the interests that first captivated his imagination as a boy remain in play. "In some respect, I am still playing with these ideas," he says. "There are real and important applications for the things we are inventing here. But it's also tremendous fun."