“I’m not supposed to be making the next fastest car or the next best fuel and all that stuff. I was supposed to do science for the sake of science.” Nice work, if you can afford it on your own dime. In the real world, however, research really needs to produce something of value, be it defense or commercial application.
When he started fiddling around in the laboratory, building metal ions into pieces of crystalline scaffolding that resemble tinker toys, Omar Yaghi had no higher purpose in mind.
Back then, his office was full of models. They depicted different metal-organic frameworks — or MOFs — made by mixing organic chemicals and metals such as zinc oxide in different proportions and conditions.
Yaghi and his research partners at Arizona State University were adding one or two more structures to their collection every day. They did little with their inventions except publish papers, and Yaghi was happy with that.
“I went into chemistry, really, for the beauty of molecules,” he said. “I didn’t want to solve any societal problem.”
Yaghi hadn’t realized that his structures, further refined over the next decade at the University of Michigan and the University of California, Los Angeles, might someday prove a crucial tool in mankind’s mastery of natural gas.
Their promise for energy technologies such as natural gas vehicles, hydrogen fuel cells and carbon capture has helped catapult Yaghi to the top of his field and placed him on some observers’ short lists for the Nobel Prize in chemistry. Last year, Thomson Reuters ranked him as the No. 2 chemistry researcher in the world.
Yaghi was born in 1965 in Amman, Jordan, and grew up as one of 13 children in a home surrounded by cows, grapevines and olive orchards. He left for the United States at age 15 to pursue his studies, and a few years later he started tinkering with molecules as a graduate student at the University of Illinois.
That went on for years as an academic exercise. In the late 1990s at Arizona State, when a mentor from the business world asked him what good his structures served, Yaghi was offended.
“I’m supposed to be addressing intellectual challenges,” he recalls thinking. “I’m not supposed to be making the next fastest car or the next best fuel and all that stuff. I was supposed to do science for the sake of science.”
But his structures’ potential for fuel tanks forced him to rethink that opinion.
They could be especially useful if the United States wants to run more of its vehicles on natural gas. There are already about 112,000 natural gas vehicles on American roads and 13 million worldwide, but storing natural gas in vehicles is far more difficult than storing gasoline or diesel.