Alexandra Navrotsky, director of the cross-disciplinary nanoscience initiative at UC Davis has been awarded a prestigious Benjamin Franklin Medal in Earth Sciences for her work on the thermochemistry of minerals, high-pressure materials, and nanomaterials. Described as "the American Nobels," this year’s Franklin medals will be presented April 25 in a ceremony at the Benjamin Franklin National Memorial in Philadelphia.
Navrotsky said she was "thrilled, excited and honored," by news of the award. "It’s amazing where I have gotten by getting up in the morning and going to work at something I love doing," she said.
"This is a great honor that recognizes Alex’s contributions to our understanding of the structure of materials, especially the new field of nanomaterials," said Provost Virginia Hinshaw.
"She has established a world-class program in this important new field that builds both on UC Davis’ strengths in materials science, environmental sciences and biology, and on our culture of working together across the boundaries of traditional disciplines," Hinshaw said. "All of UC Davis is benefitting from Alex’s success."
Nanoscience has enormous potential applications for science. It could lead to the development of new materials for manufacturing, chemical production or electronics; development of tiny devices, for example for computer hard drives with huge capacity and flat-panel displays with high resolution; and better understanding of how pollutants move through the air, soil and water.
Because of their small size, nanoparticles readily interact with living things. The behavior of nano-sized dust in the atmosphere is an important factor in understanding global climate change.
Navrotsky’s research focuses on why materials form one crystal structure and not another. Answering that question depends on the energy needed to form a particular structure. Her research has pioneered methods to make very accurate measurements of the energy needed to form crystal structures under different conditions of heat and pressure. Among other things, that allows scientists to study how minerals behave deep within the earth.
"Her findings have established, convincingly, the identity of materials at hundreds of kilometers of depth in the earth that otherwise are inaccessible to direct observation," according to the citation for the award.
Navrotsky’s laboratory is particularly interested in nanomaterials, which are made up of very small particles just a few atoms across. Because of their small size, nanomaterials have unusual properties not seen in bulk materials.
For example, they have such a high surface area compared to their volume that all the atoms are effectively on the surface. That can change chemical, electrical and other properties compared to bulk materials.
Many processes in geology occur at the nanoscale, and a new discipline of nanogeoscience is beginning to emerge, Navrotsky said. She has been a co-principal investigator in the Center for High Pressure Research, a Science and Technology Center established by the National Science Foundation to study the deep interior of the Earth and other planets.
At UC Davis, Navrotsky holds the Edward Roessler Chair in Mathematical and Physical Sciences and has appointments in four departments: chemistry; chemical engineering and materials science; geology; and land, air and water resources. She leads the UC Davis initiative on Nanophases in the Environment, Agriculture and Technology (NEAT), which currently includes about 20 faculty from a variety of departments. Partly funded by another NSF grant, NEAT supports interdisciplinary research, education and training related to nanoscience and nanomaterials.
Navrotsky received her bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago and worked in Germany and at Pennsylvania State University before joining the faculty of Arizona State University in 1974. In 1985, she moved to Princeton University where she helped to found the Princeton Materials Institute. She came to UC Davis in 1997, bringing with her the state-of-the art thermochemistry laboratory that she developed at Princeton.
The Franklin Institute began making awards in 1824, the year it was founded. Franklin Medals are awarded every year in the categories of earth science; chemistry; computer and cognitive science; engineering; life science; and physics.
Ninety-eight Franklin laureates have gone on to win Nobel prizes, including Marie Curie, Albert Einstein and Stanley Prusiner. Other past Franklin laureates include Orville Wright, Noam Chomsky, Thomas Edison and Stephen Hawking.