After 22 years as a senior research scientist with DuPont, Mas Subramanian was at the apex of a career at one of the world’s premier research labs, the Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware.

In 2003, DuPont had named him a Research Fellow. State-of-the art lab facilities were at his disposal, plus a seemingly endless technical support and post-docs to assist him. DuPont believed he had his best work ahead of him.

But for Subramanian, there was something missing.

For some time he had been thinking about giving up his privileged position in industry to teach graduate students and conduct research in academia, a longing that was realized in 2006 when he joined the department of chemistry in Oregon State’s College of Science.

“I had always thought that one day I’d bring the passion I have as a research scientist to teaching,” says Subramanian, who is now OSU’s Milton Harris Professor of Materials Science in the Department of Chemistry.

“I really wanted students to ‘get’ the excitement of research and discovery, to see how science is done. When you make a student into a scientist, you know that student is going to make amazing things in the future.”

Energetic Pursuits

Subramanian and his team at OSU are pursuing research in materials science. This involves the search for new, energy-saving materials for transmitting electricity at very low resistance; new materials to capture waste heat from power plants and automobile engines and convert it to electricity; new, durable paint pigments that can be used to conserve energy; and catalysts that can be used to produce hydrogen (an alternative fuel source) from water. 

Also a Signature Faculty Fellow with the Oregon Nanosciences and Microtechnologies Institute (ONAMI), Subramanian conducts research in association with ONAMI on self-assembled nanostructures used to design materials potentially useful in read-write sensors in computers.

Making amazing things takes time and effort, as Subramanian’s students will attest. The group routinely spends 12-hour days in the lab running experiments and engaging in “what if” conversations about things like superconductivity and skutterudites (which, surprisingly, are not a breakfast cereal). But it is time well spent.

Kind of blue, orange, green and amazing

Already Subramanian’s research team at OSU has produced one amazing result. In 2009, graduate student Andrew Smith was exploring the electronic properties of manganese oxide by heating it to 2000 degrees Fahrenheit. Instead of a new, high-efficiency conductor, however, what popped out of the oven was a brilliant blue compound….a blue Subramanian knew immediately was a research breakthrough.

“If I hadn’t come from an industry research background – DuPont has a division that developed pigments and obviously they are used in paint and many other things – I would not have known this was highly unusual, a discovery with strong commercial potential,” he says. 

The fact that it came out of a furnace having been heated to 2,000 degrees signaled to Subramanian this new blue pigment was extremely stable, a property long sought in a blue pigment, he says. Blue pigments going back to ancient Egypt have been notoriously unstable – they fade easily, and even worse, many contain toxic materials. The OSU team’s pigment doesn’t fade, is environmentally friendly and is relatively inexpensive.

National and international media have reported on the discovery and industry reps have flocked to Oregon State to determine how to put it into production.  Someone suggested calling the pigment “Kind of Blue,” in honor of Miles Davis. But most importantly, in May 2012  Subramanian learned the U.S. Patent Office had granted Oregon State a patent for the new pigment.

The team also found that with minor tweaking, the chemistry of the substance could be altered to produce other colors: orange, aquamarine, green, brown, yellow, and turquoise. They continue to search for red, the most elusive safe and stable pigment.

Andrew Smith, the student who originally put the manganese oxide in the oven, is now working as a research scientist for Shepherd Color Co., in Cincinnati, a worldwide leader in pigment manufacturing, an interesting turn of events for someone who started out studying marine biology.

Making things work, better

The discovery of the blue pigment simply added to Subramanian’s already prolific body of research – he recently passed the 300-publication mark, has more than 60 patents, and his research has been cited thousands of times by other scientists in their research papers.

Much of Subramanian’s research focuses on creating new, inorganic materials with crystalline structures that can be used to improve the efficiency of energy transmission, capture lost heat and convert it to electricity, and store electricity more efficiently. Some of this work is applicable to solar cell technology.

His lab’s research on skutterudites as an agent of thermoelectrics has received international attention.  Skutterudites are materials that might enable large-scale conversion of waste heat to energy, but research on them has been slowed because they are time-consuming and expensive to make and test.

It’s a timely research dilemma – up to 70 percent of the energy created worldwide by the burning of fossil fuels in power plants and automobile engines is lost as waste heat. Capturing and converting it to electricity on a global scale would reap obvious environmental rewards and help conserve increasingly scarce natural resources.

In 2011, the lab discovered a new, much less expensive way to make skutterudites. Using what amounts to a large microwave oven, the team heated an indium cobalt antimonite compound to 1,800 degrees in a manner of minutes, effectively cooking up a batch of skutterudites at a fraction of the cost previously associated with their production. 

The lab’s research on skutterudites will make it easier for materials scientists throughout the world to create new types of these materials and should speed the discovery of compounds that are cost efficient and scalable. In the automotive industry, this science will be of specific use in hybrid vehicles, making it possible to redirect energy lost in internal combustion to the electrical power system.  

Freedom of Discovery

Subramanian also hopes his breakthrough work on copper oxide-based superconducting materials also will help advance research in the field and speed the discovery of a “room temperature superconductor,” a material that would allow the transmission of electricity with virtually no heat loss. The ultimate ‘energy conservation material,’ it would revolutionize the economics of electricity production and transmission.

“I strongly believe a room temperature superconductor does exist,” he says. “Such a discovery would have Nobel Prize potential. If our research group finds it, I will be the happiest person in the world.”

One thing is certain, Subramanian says. This discovery will not be puzzled out theoretically. It will occur in a laboratory where scientists have the freedom to explore many research pathways and generate ideas based on them.

“DuPont was a very good environment. But at the same time, every part of life comes with a price. At OSU I have total academic freedom to explore and discover,” he says. “At DuPont my research was always highly focused on problems the company wanted solved. They are a business.”

“You can’t put a price on the freedom to do what you want to do. Research is my passion. When you discover something new, something no one has seen before, it is tremendously exciting.”