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University of Windsor

Fascination with matter motivates award-winning chemistry student

When he puts salt on his French fries, besides thinking about how good it’s going to taste, Nick Vukotic often gazes at the common table seasoning and wonders about how all those tiny sodium and chloride ions might look to the naked eye.~

“I just like looking at material and wondering what it looks like at the molecular level,” said the PhD student in chemistry. “That really blows my mind.”

In fact for most of his life, the solid objects surrounding Vukotic have been the subject of the same sort of scrutiny and fascination. Far from being an obsessive-compulsive disorder, it’s a natural inquisitiveness about the atomic structure of matter—combined with a lot of hard work—that led to him capturing a coveted Ludo Frevel Crystallography Scholarship from the International Centre for Diffraction Data.

Named after a former Dow Chemical scientist known internationally for his work in X-ray diffraction and catalysis, Vukotic’s scholarship was one of only two awarded in Canada, and just 13 internationally.

“It was great,” the Kennedy Collegiate grad said of the recognition. “It makes you feel like you’re on the right path and you should keep doing what you’re doing.”

The path Vukotic is travelling involves attempting what no one has yet accomplished: to make a three-dimensional, interlocking network of functioning molecular machines. The foundation of his work is built on X-ray diffraction, a process which involves analyzing the crystallized forms of chemical compounds by bathing them in a stream of nitrogen and hitting them with an intense X-ray beam in order to obtain a computerized visual image of their molecular structures.

“He’s become a real expert on this technique for analyzing the structure of solid state materials,” said Steve Loeb, Vukotic’s academic supervisor and a Canada Research Chair in Materials Science and Technology. “He’s very creative and he’s an exceptional student.”

Understanding the structure of those compounds allows Vukotic to manipulate their molecules, aligning them in such a way that they can be formed into tiny machines, capable of doing work such as transferring data. The “making them work” part is what no one has been able to accomplish so far, but by applying a stimulus such as electric current, he hopes to be able to harness the inherent energy contained in those molecules.

“It’s like building a car,” he said. “You can make the axles and connect them to the wheels, but until it moves, it’s not actually a machine.”

Vukotic believes there are more applications for the work that scientists haven’t even imagined yet, but in the meantime, he’ll continue working on his PhD thesis and thinking about whether he’ll pursue a career in academia or the private sector.

— Stephen Fields

Nick Vukotic stands in front of the X-ray diffraction machine in Essex Hall.