Engineering professor Nicholas Kotov has been drawn to one scientific field or another for as long as he can remember – biology, chemistry, zoology, geology. And before all that, pyrotechnics.
The son of a chemist and a physicist, Kotov didn’t wait until his teen years to start blowing things up. His family spent summers in the countryside outside Moscow, and his chemist mom encouraged him to explore and experiment. As a seven-year-old, Kotov would collect matches and – with Mom’s endorsement and help from a bunch of friends – stuff them into little tubes to make fireworks. On one unfortunate occasion he sealed one of these homemade rockets with fir sap, which melted and dripped onto his hand, causing a bad burn.
Kotov still has the scar on his hand, but his curiosity, playfulness and sense of wonder remain unscathed.
“Growing up I enjoyed experiments; I enjoyed explosions sometimes. It was a lot of fun,” said Kotov, the Joseph B. and Florence V. Cejka Professor of Engineering. “Middle school put a little bit of a damper on that because school replaces fun with rules, but as soon as I got into the university lab and was able to play with particles, films, chemical reactions, it became fun again.
“The unpredictability of nature is amazing. Just when you think you understand something, it throws you a curve and makes you delve deeper.”
But he says seeing the elegance of nature’s laws never fails to make the journey worth the frustrations.
Kotov has appointments in chemical engineering, biomedical engineering, materials science and engineering, macromolecular science and engineering, and the Biointerfaces Institute. He uses nanoscale fibers and particles to design and build materials that solve specific problems in biology, medicine, environmental science, chemistry, pharmaceuticals and any other field with a problem that captures his interest.
“Every field you can imagine needs new materials,” he said. “The bottleneck in every problem humans have comes down to what kind of material you can use to build something.”
Kotov’s building block of choice is the nanoparticle, a tiny bit of material measured in nanometers. (One nanometer is one millionth of a millimeter.) Nanoparticles expand a material engineer’s palette from 91 naturally-occurring elements to a nearly infinite variety of particles, films and fibers.
His lab has built materials that give us stronger armor, thinner lithium ion batteries, safer paints, better deep brain implants and accurate cancer diagnostic tools.
“I think nanomaterials are so omnipotent, so versatile,” Kotov said. “I have nanoparticles and nanofibers and some composites, and I’m thinking this is my paintbrush, this is my canvas. I can use this particle, this method, this fiber as a building block.”
From the earliest days of his scientific career, Kotov has been driven to search for novel ideas. He delights in discoveries that break the accepted laws of nature; he encourages his students to embrace the things that make them unique and use those gifts to transcend the academic mold.
Be different, he says, knowing full well how difficult and powerful that can be.
Kotov grew up in the Soviet Union, under immense social pressure to be like everyone else. He stutters, and as a child and teen that was a constant reminder of his nonconformity. It took him a long time to realize being different didn’t mean having to automatically expect less from life.
“I was not part of the herd,” he said. “Only much later did I realize how useful that actually was.”
Kotov’s nanoscale adventures began when he was an undergraduate studying photosynthesis in plants. The photosynthetic center – the place where energy conversion happens in plants – is a nanoscale feature. Around the same time, researchers were discovering how to make semiconductors out of inorganic and metallic particles. Kotov used those new tools and techniques to replicate the intricate photosynthetic centers he was seeing and uncovered a whole new world of structures to work with.
He’s particularly intrigued by the way nanoparticles self-assemble, a seemingly biological process that can happen with inorganic materials at the nanoscale. Teasing out parallels with biological phenomena, he believes, is the key to unlocking major advances in energy and engineering.
“I believe that we’ve just scratched the surface of nanoscience,” Kotov said. “There are some profound discoveries hidden here.”