Organic Chemistry as a Vehicle for Affecting Humankind

How the intersection of chemistry, nanotechnology and faith have allowed Dr. Tour to create real-life solutions to pressing technological, medical and environmental issues

Dr. James Tour of Rice University feels that the gifts he was given make chemistry the best vehicle to help others and this is exactly what he has devoted his professional career to doing. As a synthetic organic chemist, he has transitioned his skills to work on carbon materials including graphene chemistry and nanoelectronics. As one of the top-10 most highly cited chemists in the world over the past decade, Dr. Tour's research covers vast studies from medical and healthcare to environmental waste cleanup and alternative energies. With great dedication, he takes his research through the steps of basic scientific discovery, into engineering applications, and finally, to field deployment. In this way, he is able to observe the real-life applications and positive impacts that his research has on society as a whole.

While the basic research and application of his research are highly technical, Dr. Tour believes that the mission of his research is simple: "we really want to affect humankind; that is why we are here." This philosophy is largely based upon Dr. Tour's strong faith as a Messianic Jew, defined as a Jewish individual who believes that Jesus is the Messiah. His continual devotion to both chemistry and the Christian faith have led him to believe that there is no incompatibility between the two. Dr. Tour states that when he looks at biological systems, he is "amazed by what God has made." These insights have therefore earned him the title of Scientist of the Year in 2013 and brought him closer to the discussion of the advancement of civilization through profound environmental stewardship, advanced technologies, and in building community with those around him regardless of their background or religious practice.

Dr. Tour's goal is to take ideas from basic science and transition them into a method to affect humanity. Therefore, there are several areas within his research that affect people directly. They include:

  • Using nanomedicine to advance medicine and healthcare. Dr. Tour has developed carbon based compounds that aid patients with strokes, traumatic brain injuries, autoimmune diseases, Multiple Sclerosis, and Rheumatoid arthritis. In each of these instances, an overabundance of superoxide is attacking good healthy tissues. Dr. Tour's carbon particles deactivate the superoxide before it attacks the healthy tissue.  

  • Dr. Tour is currently deploying technology in Fukushima, Japan as they work to clean up the radioactive waste and the massive amounts of contaminated water. Dr. Tour developed a synthesis for graphene oxide, a material that is water soluble, nontoxic, and biodegradable. With graphene oxide, Dr. Tour and his team can capture radioactive elements in large quantities and effectively remove them from the water.

  • Alternative energy devices where Dr. Tour and his associates are trying to build fuel cells, supercapacitors, and batteries that have the potential to be the future of energy capture and deployment.

  • Creating cleaner methods for oil extraction. Dr. Tour aims to use good environmental stewardship in the extraction and processing of fuels by utilizing carbon materials to clean the water for the processing of materials and for pulling oil out of the ground. While currently, oil extraction methods leave 30-70% of oil beneath the surface, Dr. Tour's sensor technology is able to identify oil's presence and enhance the ability to pull more out of the ground thereby eliminating waste and creating a more environmentally friendly process which he terms "Green Carbon".

  • Creating the next generation of electronics by developing memories with greater density for devices which will store more information and one day replace flash memory.

  • Uses the new materials of graphenes, fullerenes, and nanotubes to make stronger composite materials, composites for aircrafts, deicing materials for aircrafts, and smart glass for skyscrapers that would be transparent for radio frequencies while having imbedded transparent memory, deicing circuits, and defogging circuits within them.

In short, Dr. Tour and his team work broadly in the area of nanotechnology with the ultimate goal of wanting to affect humankind in the areas of medicine, energy, environment, and new materials. Based upon his belief in the intersection between science and faith, he continues to advance towards outcomes that are life-sustaining, environmentally conscious, and at the cusp of the technological frontier.

*This profile is spotlighted in the Clean Energy Impact Fund.

Bio

Dr. James Tour's website can be found at:  http://www.jmtour.com/.

Professor Tour has hugely impacted the field of materials science and engineering using his background in synthetic organic and organometallic chemistry. Professor Tour is a synthetic organic chemist but he transitioned those skills into his work on carbon materials, first in fullerene chemistry, and later into a series of new carbon materials including graphene and molecular machine designs and device constructions for nanoelectronics and energy devices.

This has also involved the use of metal oxides and porous metal structures for advances in materials for the environment and energy and electronics industry. The materials projects that Professor Tour has been involved with are widespread, spanning across numerous areas of science:

  • Fullerene synthesis, purification and functionalization
  • Nanocars (nanomachines) with fullerene wheels and light activated motors
  • Planar conjugated polymers and precise length oligomers for optoelectronic applications
  • Single- and multi-walled carbon nanotube synthesis, purification and manipulation
  • Composites based upon carbon nanotubes and graphene
  • Conductive inks with nanotubes for transistors and radio frequency identification tags
  • Nanoreporters based on functionalized carbon black nanoparticles that can give information regarding downhole environments in oil wells
  • Nanotubes for in-flight composite repair of spacecraft
  • Graphene synthesis and doped graphene synthesis using solid carbon sources
  • Graphene lithography with single-atomic-layer resolution
  • Nontoxic carbon nanoparticles in medicine for drug delivery and traumatic brain injury
  • Formation of graphene nanoribbons through the longitudinal splitting of carbon nanotubes
  • The growth of large-area single crystal graphene
  • Seamless carbon nanotube-graphene hybrid materials
  • The construction of renewable energy devices from carbon and porous metal materials: supercapacitors, lithium ion batteries, water splitting materials, hydrogen evolution reactions and oxygen reduction reactions for fuel cell
  • Two-terminal resistive random access memories based upon silicon oxide
  • The capture of carbon dioxide from natural gas wells using inexpensive carbon supports to generate poly(CO2), an entirely new method of CO2 fixation through self-polymerization
  • The capture of radionuclides from water for the cleanup of nuclear contamination sites

These advances over Professor Tour's career have led to over 500 research publications, 50,000 citations (placing him in the top-10 most highly cited chemists in the world over the past decade), and over 70 patents, 30 of which have been licensed by companies around the world. His work on nanocars, for bottom-up construction of materials systems, was the most highly accessed paper of all American Chemical Society articles in 2005, and was also listed as the second most influential scientific advance that same year by LiveScience.com. But it is the latter two discoveries listed above, CO2 capture and radionuclide cleanup, that lead into the discussion of the advancement of civilization through profound environmental stewardship.

 

There are two discoveries, in particular, that Professor Tour has made which are having a profound impact upon humankind as they have been licensed and are moving toward rapid deployment for the protection and cleanup of the environment. The first is the capture of CO2 from natural gas wells using inexpensive carbon supports. Natural gas is considered the cleanest and recently the most abundant fossil fuel source, yet when it is extracted from wells, it often contains 10 to 20 mol% CO2 (20 to 40 wt%) which is generally vented to the atmosphere; a deleterious contributor to greenhouse gases. Efforts are underway to contain this CO2 at the wellhead using inexpensive and non-corrosive methods. Professor Tour developed nucleophilic porous carbons from simple and inexpensive carbon-sulfur and carbon-nitrogen precursors that can have 2500 m2/g surface area, yet densities >1 g/mL. Amazingly, the CO2 is captured by polymerization in the carbon channels to form poly(CO2) under much lower pressures than previously required, merely using the inherent partial pressure of CO2 coming from the well itself. This growing chemisorbed sulfur- or nitrogen-atom-initiated poly(CO2) chain further displaces physisorbed hydrocarbon, providing a continuous CO2 selectivity. Once returned to ambient conditions, the poly(CO2) spontaneously depolymerizes, leading to a sorbent that can be easily regenerated without the thermal energy input that is required for traditional sorbents. These advances have led to a series of patents that have all been licensed by oil companies for rapid deployment in the field.

 

The second area that is having an immediate impact on humankind is the capture of radionuclides from water using graphene oxide (GO) and other oxidized carbons. Professor Tour and his collaborators at Moscow State University showed that GO, with its 2800 m2/g surface area, fully dissolves in water, and its high negative charge results in capture of the cationic radionuclides from contaminated water in an unprecedented manner. Through a license agreement with Houston-based Zonko Corp., this technology is first being deployed in Fukushima, Japan, for the cleanup of the radionuclides Cs, Sr and Am, in particular, from the stored water, groundwater, and even the harbor water. The GO is able to capture these nuclides kinetically faster than any other known material, and since the carbon material is easily incinerated, it leaves an ultra-small volume of waste for burial. This collaborative cleanup effort, in partnership with Toshiba and Mitsubishi, initiated by a visit of Professor Tour to Japan in February 2014, could have an unprecedented effect on the betterment of the Fukushima site as deployment is presently underway.

 

As a Messianic Jew, Professor Tour (a Jew believing that Jesus is Messiah), is known throughout the scientific community for his deeply held Christian values of service to humankind through continual good works. Through a profound experience at the age of 18, Professor Tour dedicated his life to the service of God and his fellow human beings through direct acts of good and spiritual teaching. For example, during the first 10 years of Professor Tour's academic career as a professor at the University of South Carolina, he volunteered in a maximum security prison every Monday night instructing a room full of inmates from the teachings of Jesus Christ, and serving meals to hundreds of them every Christmas and Easter. After moving to Rice University in 1999, Professor Tour has taught from the Bible every week to a large group of college student, now numbering more than 100 in the class, regarding the precepts of Jesus Christ, on honesty, kindness, and the demonstration of acts of service per Titus 2:14: "Christ Jesus, who gave Himself for us to redeem us from every lawless deed, and to purify for Himself a people for His own possession, zealous for good deeds."

As a demonstration of biblical hospitality, Professor Tour and his wife have an "open house" every Sunday afternoon wherein they serve a meal for anyone interested in coming, which usually numbers more than 50 students in the Tour home every Sunday. Professor Tour covers all the cost himself as a dedication of service to others. He and his wife prepare at least three cuisines each week: American, Indian and a third ethnicity for variety. These lunches are attended by students from all continents and religions. Professor Tour fellowships with the students, many of whom come to ask him about life's deeper questions, for hours on end, wherein he counsels and encourages them. In addition, Professor Tour travels to Israel for one-month scientific lecture tours where he couples the science with discussions of faith and God with the Jewish people whom he considers his "brothers". The time and resources that Professor Tour devotes to the spiritual well-being of others from all walks of life, ethnicities, and social strata, is staggering. This in itself is a small miracle that such an accomplished and busy scientist can have this fourth dimension of spiritual impact upon his fellow human beings. One might even call it a testament of God touching the world through Professor Tour's life. Some video on Professor Tour's faith and the intersection of that faith with science can be found at:

https://vimeo.com/103387262  

http://vimeo.com/51659084

In the News

Top Rice scientist doing big things in nanotechnology

HOUSTON CHRONICLE | January 4, 2010

Publications

Seeds of Selective Nanotube Growth-News & Views

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Nanoporous Silicon Oxide Memory

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Three-Dimensional Thin Film for Lithium-Ion Batteries and Supercapacitors

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SnO2-Reduced Graphene Oxide Nanoribbons as Anodes for Lithium Ion Batteries with Enhanced Cycling Stability

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High Thermal Conductivity of Suspended Few-Layer Hexagonal Boron Nitride Sheets

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Capturing Carbon Dioxide as a Polymer from Natural Gas

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Awards

The 50 most Influential Scientists in the World Today, 2014

Scientist of the Year, 2013

ACS Nano Lectureship Award, 2012

"Top 10 chemists in the world over the past decade," 2009

Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2009

2008 Foresight Institute Feynman Prize

2008

NASA Space Act Award, 2008

Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award, 2007

Innovator of the Year Award, 2006

Southern Chemist of the Year Award, 2005

Honda Innovation Award for Nanocars, 2005

NSF Presidential Young Investigator Award, 1990

Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Award,1989

Most Accessed Journal Article, 2005

George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching, 2012

George R. Brown Award for Superior Teaching, 2007