Whitesides received his bachelor's degree in chemistry from Harvard in 1960 and his Ph.D. in 1964 from the California Institute of Technology. Prior to joining Harvard's chemistry department in 1982, he was a member of the faculty at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
While a chemist by training, Whitesides said success in nanotechnology requires a solid grasp of all the core sciences. For example, he said that biology is a master at making nanomachines such as the light-harvesting apparatus of green plants, and thus it is important to understand biology so as to understand nature's designs.
"I would say that we need chemistry to make things, biology to teach lessons about what to make, materials science to use the materials, and physics to measure the properties," he said. "It's a multidisciplinary area."
One of Whitesides' seminal works is a 1989 paper published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in which he describes how to control the self-assembly of a single layer of molecules, called a monolayer.
"The reason it is important and recognized is that it is a foundation of more complex systems," said Roco. For example, in theory three dimensional structures could be built in layers like rows of bricks stacked on one another to build a house.
The self-assembled monolayer (SAM) process allows scientists to choose the chemical composition of the monolayer, thus choosing the properties of the surface it creates, and control how the molecules self-arrange.
"Self-assembled monolayers are highly ordered monolayersthe molecules are arranged in a pattern with each, at least within a region, in the same orientation. That is, they are crystalline or close to it," said Whitesides. "Because they are regular and because they are very easily made they are essentially ideal as a system with which to study surfaces."
The science of surfaces is central to Whitesides' work. He considers them a form of matter distinct from liquids, solids, and gases. They are what give everything shape and determine properties such as whether or not an object is resistant to water.
"Surfaces are very important in many technologies, especially in the technologies of small things [like] microsystems and nanosystems," said Whitesides.
Whitesides recently advanced his self-assembled monolayer (SAM) technology to develop soft lithography, which is a set of techniques based on the same principles as a mold for an automobile or a rubber "confidential" stamp for an envelope, to make micro and nanostructures.
The technique produces structures similar to those made by photolithography, which is the basic technology for making microelectric devices such as semiconductors.
"Soft lithography is just beginning its development and I do not think it will take over from photolith for high performance microelectronics. But it is much less expensive than photolith and it can handle a larger range of classes of materials," said Whitesides.
The drug industry, for example, is using soft lithography to make tools that will help in the development of new drugs. Researchers are also adapting the technique to make a new class of organic microelectronics.
In the meantime, Whitesides will continue to pioneer advances in materials science. "I like discovery and I like problem solving," he said. "It's fun and sometimes useful."
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