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Amit Naskar: Materials déjà vu

Factory floor experience gave ORNL's Amit Naskar a head start as an industrial innovator, particularly in carbon fiber technologies.

July 24, 2017 − Finding new energy uses for underrated materials is a recurring theme across Amit Naskar’s research portfolio. Since joining Oak Ridge National Laboratory in 2006, he has studied low-cost polymers as carbon fiber precursors, turning lignin−a byproduct of biofuel production−into renewable thermoplastics and creating carbon battery electrodes from recycled tires.

Amit is an innovator in carbon materials and polymer technologies. As a result, his name is often associated with early-stage research and development partnerships with industry, which is no surprise given his early career experience on the factory floor.

Early in his career, Amit moved from company to company in his native India, learning first-hand about materials and manufacturing as he obtained degrees in chemistry and fiber science and technology.

The mundane factory work actually proved intriguing for Amit. At one facility he learned to convert sulfur into fuming sulfuric acid for fertilizer manufacturing, which piqued an interest in materials chemistry. “We have used this understanding to successfully convert inexpensive polyethylene to carbon fiber at ORNL,” he said.

At another plant he watched liquids being injected and sealed into plastic vials and wondered about better packaging techniques.

But, building a career in manufacturing wasn’t enough. Amit felt something was missing.

As a child, he worked his family’s farm side-by-side with his father, a high school biology teacher. He would regale Amit with stories about the inventions and scientific discoveries of Galileo, Sir Isaac Newton, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Edison and famed Indian physicist CV Raman, winner of the 1930 Nobel Prize for light scattering and namesake of Raman spectroscopy.

His father’s influence is apparent.

“That’s why I was exploring—going from one manufacturing job to the next, trying to avoid being stereotyped,” he said. “My desire to study and learn more was beyond the scope of my assigned positions.”

Then, a science-meets-industry opportunity arose through his master’s degree program. An internship at a tire company fueled his fascination with rubber polymers, which in turn fed a master’s thesis challenging the economic viability of recycling waste tire material to produce new tires.

He determined that tires made from 25-percent recycled material reduced production costs while maintaining quality. “But, for the consumer, it’s psychological. They prefer the expensive tires, convinced that only tires with all new materials will last longer,” Amit said. “Large companies would never embrace the recycled tire concept.”

Amit’s solution? The key is to “value-add.” That is, add something to existing materials to develop a new material that can outperform existing products.

He continued his studies and completed a doctorate in rubber technology from the Indian Institute of Technology in Kharagpur in 2003. A post-doc position focusing on carbon fiber composites brought Amit to Clemson University, which led to another fellowship at ORNL in 2006.

Amit continues to bring the value-add concept to the challenges of carbon fiber technologies, as well as other materials such as thermoplastics and biomass. This approach has become a hallmark across many successful, high-profile projects that have translated to industry. In fact, his work with an ORNL team studying waste tire-derived carbon received a 2016 R&D 100 Award, a top honor for tech-to-market innovation. 

Recently, Amit was appointed chief scientist at ORNL’s Carbon Fiber Technology Facility. Along with CFTF director Merlin Theodore, he works to develop the vision for future science of the lab’s carbon fiber and composites research efforts. This means taking advantage of ORNL’s strengths in neutron science, high-performance computing and materials science, as well as partnering with industry to advance new technologies.

Amit holds joint appointments at the University of Tennessee Center for Renewable Carbon and the Bredesen Center for Interdisciplinary Research and Graduate Education. These roles allow him to work with the next generation of innovators, encouraging them to take another look at underrated materials as potential energy commodities.