By Patrick Lannin and Veronica Ek
STOCKHOLM, Oct 5 (Reuters) - An Israeli scientist who suffered years of ridicule and even lost a research post for claiming to have found an entirely new class of solid material was awarded the Nobel Prize for chemistry on Wednesday for his discovery of quasicrystals.
Three decades after Daniel Shechtman looked with an electron microscope at a metal alloy and saw a pattern familiar in Islamic art but then unknown at a molecular level, those non-stick, rust-free, heat-resistant quasicrystals are finding their way into tools from LEDs to engines and frying pans.
Shechtman, 70, from Israel’s Technion institute in Haifa, was working in the United States in 1982 when he observed atoms in a crystal he had made form a five-sided pattern that did not repeat itself, defying received wisdom that they must create repetitious patterns, like triangles, squares or hexagons.
“People just laughed at me,” Shechtman recalled in an interview this year with Israeli newspaper Haaretz, noting how Linus Pauling, a colossus of science and double Nobel laureate, mounted a frightening “crusade” against him, saying: “There is no such thing as quasicrystals, only quasi-scientists.”
After telling Shechtman to go back and read the textbook, the head of his research group asked him to leave for “bringing disgrace” on the team. “I felt rejected,” Shachtman remembered.
“His discovery was extremely controversial,” said the Nobel Committee at the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, which granted him the 10-million crown ($1.5-million) award.
“However, his battle eventually forced scientists to reconsider their conception of the very nature of matter.
“Aperiodic mosaics, such as those found in the medieval Islamic mosaics of the Alhambra palace in Spain and the Darb-i Imam shrine in Iran, have helped scientists understand what quasicrystals look like at the atomic level. In those mosaics, as in quasicrystals, the patterns are regular — they follow mathematical rules — but they never repeat themselves.”
On Wednesday, Shachtman said he was “excited” but at pains to praise fellow scientists, many of whom once doubted him.
“I am a spearhead of a large scientific community, for people who study quasiperiodic materials, nicknamed quasicrystals ... Nobel is not given to ... thousands of them, but to a representative ... I feel great for them, and for me.”
Nancy Jackson, the president of the American Chemical Society (ACS), called it “a great work of discovery”.
Scientists had previously thought solid matter had only two states — crystalline, like diamonds, where atoms are arranged in rigid rows, and amorphous, like metals, with no particular order. Quasicrystalline matter offers a third possibility and opens the door to new kinds of materials for use in industry.
Hundreds of quasicrystals have been synthesised in laboratories and, two years ago, scientists reported the first naturally occurring find in quasicrystals in a mineral sample from Russia containing aluminum, copper and iron.
David Phillips, president of Britain’s Royal Society of Chemistry, said called them “quite beautiful” and said they “break all the rules of being a crystal at all”.
“You can normally explain in simple terms where in a crystal each atom sits — they are very symmetrical,” he said. “With quasicrystals, that symmetry is broken: there are regular patterns in the structure, but never repeating.”
An intriguing feature of such patterns, also found in Arab mosaics, is that the mathematical constant known as the Greek letter tau, or the “golden ratio”, occurs over and over again. Underlying it is a sequence worked out by Fibonacci in the 13th century, where each number is the sum of the preceding two.
Quasicrystals are very hard and are also poor conductors of heat and electricity, giving uses as thermoelectric materials, which convert heat into electricity. They also have non-stick surfaces, handy for frying pans, and appear in energy-saving light-emitting diodes (LEDs) and heat insulation in engines.
Astrid Graslund, secretary for the Nobel Committee for chemistry, said: “The practical applications are as of now, not so many. But the material has unexpected properties. It is very strong, it has hardly any friction on the surface. It doesn’t want to react with anything — they cannot ... become rusty.
“But ... it is more a conceptual insight — that these materials exist and we need to re-write all textbooks about crystals — it’s a shift of the paradigm, which I think is most important.” (Additional reporting by Simon Johnson in Stockholm, Ben Hirschler in London, Julie Steenhuysen in Chicago and Dan Williams, Ori Lewis and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Writing by Alastair Macdonald; Editing by Jon Boyle)