Omar Yaghi, 41
He's building the minuscule scaffolds that could one day hold the hydrogen in your gas tank
Omar Yaghi walks out of his chemistry lab at the University of California at Los Angeles, closes the door, and looks over his shoulder. "I've had a terrible secret for most of my career," he says with a sly grin. "I'm afraid of chemicals."
It's an unlikely phobia for a chemist whose research papers rank among the most influential in his field. But Yaghi chose his field for its intellectual puzzles, not its explosive ingredients. Fill a jug with one of the materials he's invented (it looks like baby powder), and, as paradoxical as it seems, it will hold more natural gas than an empty room. Many chemists believe that Yaghi's creations, if suitably tailored to store hydrogen, could lead to the first workable fuel tank for a hydrogen car.
If you zoomed in a billion times, his substances would look like enormous scaffolds. Materials scientists had seen similar frameworks before, but they couldn't custom-build them for specific purposes. "It was a dream" to engineer these frameworks to chemists' specs, says University of South Florida professor Mike Zaworotko. "Yaghi was the person who turned it into reality."
To build the frameworks, Yaghi used tiny metal supports, which, because they form stable joints, allowed him to create nearly any pattern. His tight-knit honeycombs, for instance, are great at storing gases--as gas molecules stick to the crossbeams, they draw close to-gether, becoming compressed without high pressures or low temperatures.
"We [humans] like to control our surroundings," Yaghi says. "I'm no exception." Even as a child in Jordan, Yaghi wanted to manage his life on his own; he felt offended whenever his parents checked up on him by asking for his report card. He moved to the U.S. to start college at age 16 and has organized his days around science ever since. "I find that shaving in the morning, taking a shower, is an impediment to me getting to the lab," he admits.
Within the next few years, Yaghi's devotion could pay off in real-world applications such as filters that capture the carbon-dioxide emissions from smokestacks. But to Yaghi, such uses are a secondary concern. "I didn't start out to solve some big societal problem," he says. Rather, he's always simply chased the unknown. "If you do that honestly, then usefulness to society will come." --Lauren Aaronson