Lab name: Laboratory for Materials Innovation

Group leader: Richard Kaner

Location: University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Further information:

Professor Richard Kaner
Professor Richard Kaner
Laboratory for Materials Innovation: Richard Kaner's group at UCLA.
Laboratory for Materials Innovation: Richard Kaner's group at UCLA.

Carbon and boron lie at the heart of Richard Kaner’s research, whether it is the form of conducting polymers, new forms of carbon for energy storage, or superhard metallic borides.

Kaner holds the Dr. Myung Ki Hong Endowed Chair in Materials Innovation at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) and is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry, the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and the California NanoSystems Institute (CNSI).

After receiving a PhD in inorganic chemistry from the University of Pennsylvania, Kaner moved to the University of California, Berkeley as a postdoctoral researcher. He took up a position at UCLA in 1987, becoming a full professor in 1993.

Kaner’s research has been recognized with many awards including the American Chemical Society’s Award in the Chemistry of Materials in 2012, the MRS Medal from the Materials Research Society in 2015, and the Centenary Prize from the Royal Society of Chemistry in 2018.

Richard Kaner talked to Materials Today about his current research and future plans.

How long has the lab been running?

I started at UCLA in January 1987, so we’ve been going over 31 years.

How many staff makes up the lab?

I currently have five postdoctoral fellows, eight graduate students, seven undergraduates, and two technical staff members.

What are the major themes of research in your group?

We mainly work on (i) nanostructured conjugated polymers for separation applications; (ii) new forms of carbon for energy storage; and (iii) developing the world’s hardest metals for applications in cutting, polishing, and hard-facing.

How and why did you come to work in these areas?

I learned about conjugated polymers from my PhD advisor, Alan MacDiarmid, and co-advisor, Alan Heeger. They shared the 2000 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the discovery of the first conducting polymer – polyacetylene. My PhD concentrated on developing the first conducting polymer batteries based on polyacetylene. Since polyacetylene wasn’t air stable, I began working on polyaniline, which is air stable, as soon as I started my lab at UCLA.

Unfortunately conducting polymers have another problem – since they are conjugated, they don’t dissolve in common solvents or melt. About 20 years ago, we started making nanostructured forms and found that they dispersed in water, allowing us to produce conducting polymer paints, inks, films, and membranes. With exposure to intense light, the dispersed polymers even melt!

Working with my colleague Eric Hoek in Civil Engineering, we developed a polyaniline-based membrane that can separate oil from water because it is hydrophilic and oleophobic (the inverse of essentially all commercial membranes) and clean up the mess created by oil fracking. Eric and I started a company called PolyCera (since we had developed a membrane that is processable like a polymer ‘Poly’, but has the separation efficiency of a ceramic ‘Cera’). We sold PolyCera to Water Planet Inc., which has now installed our membranes in oil installations all over the world to clean up after oil fracking. 

My work on new forms of carbon started during my postdoctoral research with Neil Bartlett at the University of California, Berkeley where we created new forms of graphite containing boron and/or nitrogen. When challenged to make a single layer of carbon for polymer reinforcement by a UCLA colleague in Mechanical Engineering, Tom Hahn, I showed that this could be done by intercalation/exfoliation of graphite.

We also hold the world’s first patent on how to make graphene, which we filed in 2002, two years before Novoselov and Geim’s work with Scotch tape. We have also created carbon nano-scrolls [1].

My undergraduate work at Brown University with Aaron Wold introduced me to solid state/materials chemistry. When asked by Jack Gilman, a materials science theorist at UCLA, if I had an interest in hard or superhard materials, I told him about converting my boron-carbon-nitrogen materials into diamond. He suggested looking into borides, which ultimately led to our work on ReB2, a material hard enough to scratch diamond, and WB4, which can be made even harder than ReB2 and is more interesting since it contains no expensive platinum group metals. We started a company called SuperMetalix to see if these basic research ideas, supported by the US National Science Foundation, could be turned into useful materials.

What facilities and equipment does the lab have?

We have lots of synthesis equipment including vacuum lines, glove boxes, high-temperature furnaces, arc melters, diamond saws, polishers, hardness testers, membrane filtration, gas separation, and Fourier-transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR). 

My department has excellent materials characterization facilities including scanning electron microscopy, energy-dispersive X-ray spectroscopy (EDX), X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS), mass spectroscopy, electron paramagnetic resonance (EPR), solid-state nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR), particle size analyzers, UV-visible light spectrometers, and much more.

The California NanoSystems Institute also has excellent microscopy facilities including high-resolution transmission electron microscopy (TEM), atomic force microscopy (AFM), scanning tunneling microscopy (STM), and more.

Do you have a favorite piece of kit or equipment?

Arc melting is very exciting to watch as long as you wear dark glasses to protect your eyes!

What do you think has been your most influential work to date?

We published an important paper on how to make graphene from graphite oxide, which became our (and the journal’s) most highly cited paper with >7000 citations [5].

We published another important paper on how to make supercapacitors out of laser-scribed graphene, which has received >2000 citations [6]. We even had a three-minute video entitled ‘Super Supercapacitor’ made for the Sundance Film Festival, which went viral with over 2 million views. At one point, a few weeks after its release, it was trending number 2 on Reddit!

Our work on nanostructured conducting polymers started with a communication in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 2003 [2], which has been influential in getting many others into the field (>1600 citations). 

Our work on creating the world’s hardest metals has also had great impact [3,4]. 

What is the key to running a successful group?

Having talented, self-motivated students is critical. For the type of materials research I do, collaborations are also key. And, of course, finding agencies, philanthropists, and companies willing to pay for the research is vital.

How do you plan to develop your group in the future?

I realized, after 20 years of basic research, that if I didn’t take my work a few steps closer to solving real-world problems these problems wouldn’t get solved. Therefore, while we will continue making new materials, we hope to find ones that can solve real-world problems too.

Key publications

  1. L. M. Viculis, J. J. Mack and R. B. Kaner. A chemical route to carbon nanoscrolls. Science, 299 (2003) 1361; and U.S. Patent #6,872,330 (May 2002).
  2. J. Huang, S. Virji, B. H. Weiller and R. B. Kaner. Polyaniline nanofibers: facile synthesis and chemical sensors. J. Am. Chem. Soc., 125 (2003) 314
  3. R. B. Kaner, J. J. Gilman and S. H. Tolbert. Materials Science: Designing superhard materials. Science, 308 (2005) 1268.  
  4. H.-Y. Chung, M. B. Weinberger, J. B. Levine, R. W. Cumberland, A. Kavner, J.-M. Yang, S. H. Tolbert and  R. B.  Kaner. Synthesis of ultra-incompressible superhard rhenium diboride at ambient pressure. Science, 316 (2007) 436
  5. D. Li, M. B. Müller, S. Gilje, R. B. Kaner and G. G. Wallace. Processable aqueous dispersions of graphene nanosheets. Nature Nanotechnology, 3 (2008) 101
  6. M. F. El-Kady, V. Strong, S. Dubin and R. B. Kaner. Laser scribing of high performance and flexible graphene-based electrochemical capacitors. Science, 335 (2012) 1326
  7. A. T. Lech, C. L. Turner, R. Mohammadi, S. H. Tolbert and R. B. Kaner. Structure of superhard tungsten tetraboride: A missing link between MB2 and MB12 higher borides. Proc. Nat. Acad. Sci., 112 (2015) 3223
  8. M. F. El-Kady, Y. Shao and R. B. Kaner. Graphene for batteries, supercapacitors and beyond. Nature Review Materials, 1 (2016) 16033
  9. C. O. Baker, X. Huang, W. Nelson and R. B. Kaner. Polyaniline nanofibers: broadening applications for conducting polymers. Chemical Society Reviews, 46 (2017) 1510.  
  10. G. Akopov, M. T. Yeung and R. B. Kaner. Rediscovering the crystal chemistry borides. Advanced Materials, 29 (2017) 1604506