The Welch Foundation, one of the nation’s largest sources of private funding for basic research, has honored Dr. Stephan Link, associate professor of chemistry at Rice University, for his pioneering contributions to the emerging field of nanophotonics. The 2015 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research pays tribute to Dr. Link for his groundbreaking contributions in plasmonic nanomaterials and recognizes his leadership, creativity and commitment to science as demonstrated through his research and teaching.
Controlled Environments spoke to Dr. Link about his work in the field of nanotechnology.
Controlled Environments (CE): How did you get involved with nanotechnology work?
Dr. Stephan Link (SL): I worked on nanomaterials doing my PhD when I was at Georgia Tech. We looked at gold nanoparticles. We looked at ultrafast spectroscopy, so I kind of drew my whole scientific education [from] the field of nanoscience.
CE: Can you describe your workspace? Do you use a cleanroom?
SL: We do some photolithography in the cleanroom. (The Rice University website gives a description of the cleanroom facilities: http://sea.rice.edu/instrument-association/cleanroom-facilities)
CE: What are you currently working on?
SL: I’m a professor. I have a research group of 9 grad students, two post-docs, a research scientist, an undergraduate. In terms of my daily duties I teach super-res research, undergraduate classes (usually one class per semester), and physical chemistry. Obviously as a professor you have committees both for the department and for the university. In addition to raising money – maybe that’s the most important one – so you can pay your students.
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CE: Can you describe the future implications of your research and findings?
SL: All of our research is basically research into metallic nanoparticles or nanostructures that support what’s called a surface plasmon – the easiest description is an oscillation of this conduction-band electrons. What that means is that the metals are good conductors, and they’re good conductors because electronics can travel easily. What we do with light is we excite waves of electron motion, and what that will give us is color. You might have seen some of the old church windows in Europe – they’re red, for example – and that red color comes from nanoscale metal nanoparticles – gold nanoparticles. You can make this in chemistry, in solution, or you can do this by even lithography or photolithography.
What we’re interested in is understanding these colors on a very fundamental level where we look at a single particle at a time, so we can go on a microscope and say what kind of shape does it have, what kind of size does it have, and what kind of color does it have; and then [determine] what happens when you put two particles together, or three particles together, and how do they interact in any way to make tunable colors beyond what’s tunable over size and shape. Because that’s kind of what drives nanoscience in general — you tune properties by size and shape, and with these metals you can really tune anywhere from the UV into the infrared region with absorption and scattering bands, and then when you put them together they interact very strongly, and you further tune these optical behaviors.
Now, that can have any kind of implications in terms of what you want to do with them – they’re used for sensors, for biosensing, for chemical sensing, they could be used for color generation and displate – I mean, they’re not used for that, but that’s kind of the idea behind it. They generate heat because they absorb the light and that can be used for cancer therapy. It can be used for heat generation or steam generation. Basic principles of light interactions with these nanostructures that are made out of metals are our goal here.
CE: Congratulations on winning the Hackerman Award, which comes with a prize of $100,000. What do you plan to do with the money?
SL: It’s a very lucky prize to have because it’s one of the few prizes that is actually all personal money. Honestly I don’t know yet … probably invest some, and hopefully do something fun with it too so that it creates a good memory. But honestly I haven’t decided yet.
CE: Anything else you want to share with our audience?
SL: I find it very interesting and intriguing to look at the nanoworld both from a top-down manufacturing [point of view] like cleanrooms, and photolithography, even lithography, as well as this chemical growth of nanoparticles. I think that it will be interesting to see where applications come out. I find it interesting to maybe be at a little bit of the niche between work that’s top-down fabrication and colloidal nanostructures.
In February 2015, the Welch Foundation awarded its prestigious Hackerman Award in Chemical Research to Rice University scientist Stephan Link in recognition of his pioneering contributions to the emerging field of nanophotonics. Video: Rice University