‘Golden question’ that made Indian scientist probe nanotech


Bangalore: How many atoms are required to keep gold shining? It was this question asked by a student that made India’s noted scientist C.N.R. Rao take up research in nanotechnology that manipulates matter at atomic and molecular levels.

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“When I was teaching at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Kanpur 25 years ago, a bright student asked how many atoms were required for gold to shine. I studied the element from 500 to 300 to 200 atoms. At 200 atoms, gold did not shine, it was just a metal. That finding prompted me take up research in nanotechnology,” Rao said at a nanotech event in this tech hub Thursday.

Recalling his quest for discovering the spin-offs of nanotechnology, the next frontier in science, Rao said the “golden” question was asked in the context of the Avogadros Number, which is 6.022 141 99 X 10 raised to the power 23, named after the French scientist Amadeo Avogadros (1766-1856).

“Two-three decades ago, nanotech was just an idea. Since then, the niche science has grown manifold and has a bright future, as evident from the discovery of graphene, a powerful carbon-based allotrope,” Rao told about 500 delegates at the fourth edition of ‘Bangalore Nano’ conference-cum-expo.

Noting that the 2010 Nobel Prize was awarded in physics for a discovery in graphene, Rao said as a powerful carbon-based element, graphine stores hydrogen.

“Initiation and mimic of graphene can find multiple applications in the energy sector and environment,” said Rao, who is also chairman of the Scientific Advisory Council to the prime minister.

Physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov were jointly awarded the Nobel last year for ground-breaking experiments on two-dimensional material graphene.

In the US, a large grant of $120 million was sanctioned to California Institute of Technology and University of California – Berkeley for producing hydrogen. In principle, hydrogen can be used to run cars, planes and generate electricity.

“Plants decompose water using nano manganese and produce energy for plants. Artificial photo-synthesis, if done in labs, has tremendous possibilities in electronics. But there are several challenges in this field,” Rao added.