- Number 336 |
- May 2, 2011
ORNL nanoscale scientist cuts across disciplines
Bobby Sumpter earned a
doctorate in physical
chemistry from Oklahoma
State University in 1986.
He has been a member of
ORNL since he joined the
lab’s polymer science
group in 1992.
Locker room conversation in the average gym might tend toward topics of weight lifting or calorie burning, but in the locker room at DOE’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory, you’re more likely to hear ideas for a new nanoscale research project than tips on weight loss.
“There’s never a time when you don’t have a discussion about science,” said ORNL’s Bobby Sumpter, who works at the lab’s Center for Nanophase Materials Science, or CNMS. “It’s what I find so valuable about co-location and having a set of people with common goals and interests. You go to get a coffee, and you come back with a new idea.”
Interdisciplinary science is the best part of the job for Sumpter, a researcher who holds joint appointments in ORNL’s Computer Science and Mathematics division and the CNMS. He calls himself a computational chemical physicist: “That way, I can insult both chemists and physicists,” Sumpter jokes.
His interest in all things science stemmed back to grade school, when Sumpter received a chemistry kit from his older brother. “It taught me a little bit about chemistry, a little bit about electricity - which is basically what I still do today,” Sumpter said. “A lot of my work deals with understanding how electrons contribute to chemistry and physics, which is a fascinating area.” Because electron behavior influences electricity, magnetism and superconductivity, this kind of fundamental understanding of electrons at the nanoscale could help improve materials in a variety of energy-related applications.
Although his fascination with chemistry and physics has remained strong over the years, Sumpter says the study methods in those fields have changed dramatically. “As computers exponentially grew, they became a facility to help us design things and new materials,” he said. In the early 1980s, when he was starting his graduate work, Sumpter thought that the biggest system he would be able to solve — using quantum mechanics — would be a single water molecule, or a system of only a few atoms. Now, he says, supercomputing resources enable him to run simulations of systems of 1 million atoms. And that single water molecule system he dreamed of? It could run on one of today’s personal desktop computer in a matter of minutes.
Bridging computational simulations and experimental studies has enabled Sumpter and his colleagues to gain insight into materials such as graphene and the semiconducting PEDOT polymer. “At the nanoscale, we’re simulating the system that we’re actually examining experimentally,” he said. “Changes in computing have opened up the field immensely.”Sumpter earned a doctorate in physical chemistry from Oklahoma State University in 1986. He has been a member of ORNL since he joined the lab’s polymer science group in 1992.