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ACS Award In The Chemistry Of Materials

by Lauren K. Wolf
January 7, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 1

Credit: Shrike Zhang
Younan Xia
Credit: Shrike Zhang

Sponsored by E. I. du Pont de Nemours & Co.

Younan Xia, 47, is one of the most highly cited researchers of the past decade in chemistry and materials science. So it may come as a surprise that he attributes his success, not to a focused research program heading in a defined direction, but to a series of happy accidents.

“My research has always been taken in different directions by unexpected results,” says Xia, a professor of biomedical and chemical engineering and chemistry at Georgia Institute of Technology.

For instance, in 2002, he and his group demonstrated for the first time the high-yield synthesis of single-crystal silver nanocubes—thanks to an odd turn of events in the lab (Science, DOI: 10.1126/science.1077229). The researchers were reducing silver nitrate with ethylene glycol to form a batch of nanoparticles, when they noticed the exclusive production of single-crystal nanocubes, a goal that had eluded the nanoscience community for some time.

They subsequently discovered in 2004 that chloride ion impurities in some batches of ethylene glycol were responsible: The ions were oxidatively etching, or dissolving, flawed particles—those that had developed “twin defects”—to leave behind only single crystals (Nano Lett., DOI: 10.1021/nl048912c).

“What distinguishes us from other groups synthesizing nanomaterials is our philosophy of not just making materials by recipe, but always trying to understand the mechanism” by which they’re formed, Xia says.

Over the years, Xia and his team have reigned supreme at developing techniques for fabricating metallic nanocrystals of various shapes in a controlled fashion. The scientists are also now applying the tiny materials they’re making to medicine. For example, Xia’s group has designed porous gold nanocages that hold and then release cancer drugs on command (Nat. Mater., DOI: 10.1038/nmat2564).

“Younan’s work in the synthesis of diverse classes of metallic nanomaterials has changed the way that people think about the field and the levels of control that can be achieved,” says John A. Rogers, a materials scientist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

Even Xia’s career in chemistry resulted from a happy accident. Growing up in China, he excelled at science and was planning to go to an engineering college. But a last-minute switch to attend the University of Science & Technology of China (USTC), in Anhui province, caused Xia to instead sign up for a major in chemistry—a subject he excelled at on his entrance exams.

He now looks at that last-minute decision as a blessing. “Chemistry is the central science,” Xia says. “It’s a stepping stone, and you can move pretty easily into other fields” with a solid background in the discipline.

After graduating from USTC with a bachelor’s degree in 1987, Xia moved to the U.S. in 1991, received his master’s degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1993, and then got his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1996. As part of his thesis work, he carried out some of the seminal work in soft lithography with adviser George M. Whitesides.

Since then, Xia has held faculty positions at the University of Washington, Seattle; Washington University in St. Louis; and most recently Georgia Tech.

Xia will present the award address before the ACS Division of Colloid & Surface Chemistry.


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