This is a continuing profile series on the directors of the Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science User Facilities. These scientists lead a variety of research institutions that provide researchers with the most advanced tools of modern science including accelerators, colliders, supercomputers, light sources and neutron sources, as well as facilities for studying the nano world, the environment, and the atmosphere.
Meet the director:
The first thing you notice about Chuck Black, the director of the Center for Functional Nanomaterials (CFN), is his enthusiasm – for his scientific discipline, for his job, and for his facility.
"I've always been attracted to the aesthetics of nanoscience. When you see nanomaterials under the microscope, you realize that they are art. They are beautiful," says Black.
He joined the CFN as a scientist in 2006, when the Center was forming and the site still under construction. "This was an amazing opportunity for me – no building, no equipment, a few staff. The opportunity to come here and help create something new – create a department, create the set of scientific instruments, create the mission, and create a community – it was a once-in-a-lifetime chance," recalls Black, "and very fun." For nine years, he managed one of the technical groups, the CFN Electronic Nanomaterials Group, and last year he assumed the directorship.
The director's background:
Black intended to become a physician when he went off to college in Tennessee. But he was drawn to science research because of the creativity it fosters. "I had always liked art, music, mathematics, and writing. And I was really good at science. I didn't want to give up my creative passions. I became convinced that practicing science would let me have them all as a part of my career.
"My background is almost a cliché. My grandfather was an electrical engineer and my parents were high school math teachers. Science is in the genes."
After completing his bachelor's degree at Vanderbilt University, Black pursued master's and doctoral degrees at Harvard University. He then worked as a research staff member at the IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Center in New York State for ten years, before joining Brookhaven and the nascent CFN team.
The Center for Functional Nanomaterials is located on the Brookhaven National Laboratory campus on Long Island, New York. It is one of five DOE Office of Science Nanoscale Science Research Centers, each having specialized expertise and capabilities in selected areas of nanoscience. The center houses state-of-the-art and even one-of-a-kind instruments for creating, characterizing, and understanding nanomaterials. These resources are available to researchers - or users - from around the world.
Black provides a perspective on the dynamics that exist between the CFN facility staff and visiting user scientists. He manages a staff of world-class scientists who must be ready to step away from their own research and support users of the facility who come from universities, industry, and other national labs. "To be successful, the CFN needs a staff who fully embrace the mission of advancing nanoscience by doing both the best science we can and by helping CFN users do their best science. By requiring our staff to maintain such balance, we have created a wonderful place — where super-talented scientists gain satisfaction from both service to others and pursuit of personal ambitions. We've managed to make a community of nice people who like working together to solve problems.
"You can find facilities that have some of the same pieces of equipment we have, and you can even find a few with most of them. But you cannot find the combination of these machines with such a talented staff dedicated to supporting user science. That combination is essential for our success – users value the experience of working with top caliber scientists and using state-of-the-art nanoscience equipment. I would say that there are no other facilities like these in the world."
One of his many favorite aspects of working in the CFN is "We are constantly exposed to new, awesome ideas. We are a facility with around 39 permanent staff, but we support more than 500 users each year," explains Black. "We get to learn about their projects and then it's our job to help them achieve their goals."
While a typical day consists of mostly administrative duties, Black enjoys those that include discussions with CFN staff scientists and visits with users. He also finds time to be hands-on with his own research. "I am lucky I can figure out ways to do that," says Black. "I still enjoy the most basic things about experimental science – like pouring chemicals. I've been doing that for 25 years, and I still get a thrill out of it."
Black gives priority to telling the CFN story and increasing awareness of his facility. He believes too few people know about the Department of Energy user facilities and, as CFN director, wants to improve awareness of their capabilities.
"We want people to know that the national labs are an incredible resource for our country," says Black. "There is nothing like them on earth.
"We are aware that part of the DOE mission is making sure there is a well-trained scientific work force. We will always need a next generation of talented scientists." Black and his staff seed this future work force by hosting summer internships. "Later today I'm going down the hall to welcome this year's summer interns. I'll tell them: 'We need you. We need you to be really good at science, and we need you to be passionate about it.' A number of staff really enjoy interacting with the students. And that's terrific, because training the next generation of scientists is part of our mission.
"It's important for our future, that we accomplish our mission to advance nanoscience to make our world better."
"The promise of nanoscience," says Black, "is that when you structure materials at the size scale of nanometers, you can change their properties. You make materials with new properties. It's almost magical.
"One concept we think a lot about at the CFN is self-assembly. The term sounds science fiction-y."
What is self-assembly?
Self-assembly is a powerful concept for making nanoscale structures where molecules are designed to spontaneously arrange themselves into a desired shape or pattern without the need for human intervention.
Self-assembly describes how some materials can be made to organize themselves, under the appropriate conditions and without human intervention. Black and the CFN team refer to this approach to making materials as "synthesis by assembly." The CFN won a 2016 R&D 100 Award for its development of nanoscale textures that render glass fully transparent and completely water-repellent. The textured surface transmits all wavelengths of light into the glass so that the glass is invisible except around the edges and efficiently repels water. [SEE "What is self-assembly?"]
"Another area where the CFN excels," explains Black, "is in providing tools and techniques for watching materials as they do their work." The CFN has a number of specialized instruments that allow researchers to watch materials perform in real-world, difficult conditions – such as catalysts working at high temperatures in toxic gases, batteries operating in corrosive liquids, and solar cells under intense light. "The best way to learn about why a material works, or doesn't work, is to watch it do its job. We use this information to design materials that work better."
Experiment #1. Observing water splitting - A user came to CFN to observe a particular nanomaterial cause water splitting, turning common H2O into hydrogen and oxygen gases. When watching the material in action inside a high-resolution electron microscope, it was clear that the water-splitting reaction takes place not at the material surface but inside the material. High-resolution video of the water-splitting process shows the material blistering, as gas bubbles evolve inside of it.
Experiment #2. Nanochip cybersecurity - CFN users are devising new methods for using nanomaterials to improve cybersecurity. An academic researcher has recently been structuring microchips made from two-dimensional semiconductor nanomaterials, so that they display unique optical signatures - shine light on it and the chip transmits its unique ID back. With the unique properties of these nanomaterials, the chip cannot be copied or counterfeited, playing a key role in preventing theft.
Best advice for a future director at the Center for functional Nanomaterials
"Being CFN Director is a lot of work," says Black. "For me, the saving grace is that I love it so much, it stops seeming like work." He offers this example. "I gave a tour yesterday to a distinguished visitor. At the tour's end, we were saying goodbye and the visitor commented 'It's really nice to visit a place and see so many people excited about their work.' And my response was, 'Well that's because we don't really see it as work. It's our passion.'"
"Working in the CFN is our job, but it's also who we are.
"For me, the CFN mission provides a sense of purpose. There's a deep satisfaction in being a part of the national lab enterprise. I'm all in!"
In Fiscal Year 2021, our 28 user facilities welcomed more than 33,000 researchers from academia, industry, and government research enterprises from all 50 states and the District of Columbia to perform scientific research. For details on the individual Office of Science User Facilities, please go to https://science.osti.gov/User-Facilities/User-Facilities-at-a-Glance.
Please go to Profiles of User Facilities Directors to read more articles on the directors for the Office of Science user facilities.
The Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, please visit the Office of Science website.