Please tell us about yourself
Dr. Govind Mallick. An expert in nanomaterials, Govind was born and raised in Nepal. He did a bachelor’s in biochemistry from the University of Arizona, a master’s in environmental chemistry from Northern Arizona Universityin Flagstaff, and a PhD in quantum chemistry from the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque.
He is a research chemist with the Army Research Laboratory in Aberdeen, Maryland. In addition to that, he also has two patents filed and over fifty technical papers written on a variety of subjects and is frequently invited to speak to international and domestic scientific audiences. He’s also a big fan of sports, specifically basketball and football. It’s safe to say that Dr. Mallick is a pretty diverse guy.
His work is to improve the world and the work of the warfighter, one nano-advancement at a time. His role as a research scientist at ARL is to develop novel nanomaterials and understand their fundamental structures, properties, functions and relationships that will enable in the development of nanoscale devices. The goal? To safeguard the United States and its defense. That could range from small unit technologies to weapons of mass destruction and so forth.
What is the goal or the mission of your research, and what do you hope it will achieve?
“The kinds of nanomaterials that I develop are expected to have superhero strength including superior thermal, mechanical, and electronic properties. More importantly, we want them to be extremely light. For example, recently I was in an overseas assignment in Singapore as an exchange scientist, which is part of the engineers and scientists exchange program sponsored by the Department of Defense. There, my team and I developed two-dimensional boron nitride atomic sheets, which is almost 100 times stronger than steel and can sustain up to 1200 degrees Celsius in temperature and is extremely light. The beauty of this material is that the electrical properties can be manipulated. Imagine if and when these materials are developed and used in the current technologies of war fighting soldiers. The world will be a better place.”
This is like video game armor!
“Sure, and it’s so light! This state-of-the-art technology could be embedded from within, and so soldiers could have this very light material to carry on. This would be really transformational. However, the work that I do is really very basic. There’s a gap between getting it fully developed and where we are right now. I’m a basic researcher and I develop new technologies. The goal is, obviously, to work for the soldier, and for defense. I want to make technology even better, and keep us on top technologically.”
In your own words, what is it about your work that makes it so significant?
“As you already know, nanomaterials have been around for a long, long time. It’s nothing new. Our ancestors burned carbon related materials which could have formed into tiny honeycomb like structures in ashes or residue from what was left. These honeycomb structures basically are those special materials called graphene and carbon nanotubes. So these things have been around for a long time. What I do is realize, synthesize, analyze, and develop these and new types of nanomaterials into state-of-the-art nano-devices for future applications. What is significant about my work is that I am probably one of the very few scientists who are capable of doing research both theoretically as well as experimentally. That helps me understand my work at very bottom level – at atomic level.”
Can you give me an example?
“When I was recently working overseas my team and I were successful in developing a new kind of two dimensional nano-sheets, hexagonal boron nitride films. There we were able to successfully grow as big as six micron of this film, which is the largest so far discovered. This was possibly due to my understanding of materials at the quantum level and implementing it into experimental aspect of my research. I wrote proposals and successfully pursued my host organization in Singapore to work on the development of hexagonal boron nitride. Again, I have the ability to explore these materials at an atomic level, due to my theoretical and quantum mechanical background, and simultaneously develop nanomaterials into very unique research. You’re talking two-in-one.”
How does the work that you do aid in the military or help with military missions?
“We want to make the military stronger than it is now. My work is in nano, which is very small, as you can imagine, but it has great potential to improve the current technological devices and equipment. For example, making very lightweight materials, as I mentioned. A thing that I did a couple of years ago was with carbon nanotubes.”
“Just to give you a comparison, 10,000 nanotubes or more can fit into one single human hair. That’s very small!”
“A couple of years ago we were able to develop, using these nanotubes, the tiniest diodes possible in a chip of fifteen millimeters by fifteen millimeters. We were able to develop almost 150 devices on it. I also saw the capability of these nanotubes to detect gases of different kinds in an attempt to use these in applications in war in terror, or weapons of mass destruction and so forth. The next goal is to develop these tiny materials on a bigger scale so that we can put them on armor and so forth. It will be very interesting to see when that happens, and it will happen one of these days.”
What do you think it the most impressive or beneficial thing about your research and why?
“To me, it seems like everything in everyday life, in coming years, is going to be based on nanotechnology. That is going to ease life tremendously.”
“We are already seeing quite a lot of smart phones and tablets, which are good examples of nanomaterials and nanotechnology. Some of the very impressive works that I have done or involved in, are the development of nanomaterials for the detection of chem.-bio hazardous gases, the CNT diodes, the development of non-linear optical materials for the protection of eyes from high frequency lasers, the development of the largest hexagonal boron nitride atomic sheets, and so forth. Among all these, I would say the most satisfying and impressive work was the development of the CNT diodes. For a long time I was baffled to see the electrical rectification behavior in CNTs.It was my quantum mechanical modeling background that helped me understand the asymmetric patterns of carbon rings in the nanotubes which were causing such behavior.”
What got you interested in this field of study?
“That’s really kind of interesting. Unlike other people, I never planned anything! Whatever came up I just took it. How did I get into this? It was my mentor, Dr. Shashi P. Karna, who is a senior scientist, an ST, here at ARL. He used to work for the Air Force Lab when I was doing my PhD. We were doing similar kind of quantum mechanical work. He was interested in my work and I was interested in his work. He eventually asked me to work with him and he moved to Maryland to work for the Army and I too came after my PhD thesis defense.”
“After a couple of years of work in the theoretical aspect we happened to meet Professor Richard E. Smalley, who won the Nobel Prize in 1996 for discovering buckyballs. He sort of influenced us by saying, ‘Hey, you’re doing things on the atomic level, why don’t you start doing something on the nanomaterials level, and do some experiments as well?’ So we started doing the theoretical modeling and experimental work on nanomaterials, simultaneously.”
Are you working on any other projects right now?
“The thing that I would like to work on, is to elaborate on what I’ve done and discovered in Singapore. Boron nitridenanofilms are basically the counterpart of graphene, except that graphene is very metallic whereas boron nitride is an insulator. But they can be electrically manipulated. What I’m thinking of is developing them into three dimensional materials.”
“I’m thinking of developing something called boron nitride nanofoams. Now these nanofoams have pores that range from 5 microns to 100 microns. The good thing about this is that they can attract or capture energetic materials for example, or organic materials, or bio-hazardous materials. That means they’re wonderful materials for detection or transportation of explosives, or for chem/bio defense.”
“It is a good shock-absorbant nanomaterial, which could be very helpful in terms of transportation. At the same time it could be detecting some sort of hazardous materials when doped with conducting materials such as graphene by making it a semi-conductor. The continuous plan that I have is to get these materials – these boron nitride nanomaterials – into a larger scale. Right now, they are very small, they’re tiny.”
If you could go anywhere in time and space, where would you go and why?
“A few years ago I had a dream of becoming an astronaut. There’s a reason behind that. You see, my work is somewhat related to gravity. Most of the nanomaterials I develop are based on the chemical vapor deposition on a metallic substrate. I thought, ‘hmm, I wonder if I can deposit these materials in a zero gravity environment?’ If I could do some research out there that would be nice.”