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Science Journey: "From Pencil Lead to Skyscrapers: Building the Future with Carbon Nanomaterials"

Michael Mazza, Graduate Student Chemistry

This video premiered on on Friday, December 11, 2020.


What will the buildings and electronics of the future look like? How can some of the strongest materials ever made also be the lightest?

In this video, Michael Mazza explains how chemists and physicists around the world are harnessing carbon, the primary building block of life, to make new and interesting materials.

Q&A with Michael Mazza

Graphite and diamond are both made up of only carbon. Graphite has each carbon atom bonded to 3 other carbon atoms and is arranged in flat sheets. Diamond has each carbon atom bonded to 4 other carbon atoms and has a strong, dense structure.

One billion nanometers make up one meter. A meter is about the size of a yard.

Pencil lead is made out of graphite. A pencil marks up a paper by shaving off a few layers of graphite onto the page.

Graphene develops defects when it is grown in large batches. These are areas where the atoms aren't bonded correctly. These defects act as weak spots in graphene and are much easier to crack.

Graphene is a single layer of graphite as a flat surface. A carbon nanotube is a layer of graphene that is rolled so that the two ends of the graphene bond to one another. This is very similar to taking a piece of paper and rolling it into a tube by taping the two ends together.

Graphene can be found today in headphones and bike helmets.

These cables are braided, or coiled around one another. This makes them very flexible.

Clothes with black dye absorb about 95% of light.

Carbon nanotubes act as a dense forest that trap the light between the tubes. The light then bounces around and cannot escape. It eventually loses energy and gets absorbed as heat.

Vantablack, and other superblack materials are being used in modern telescopes. Telescopes need to have very dark interior walls so that any extra light that gets in does not end up in the image. This lets us see more distant stars and planets.

Iridescence is a property where the color of an object changes when the angle of light changes. As the object is tilted towards or away from you, the color changes as different colors of light are scattered.

Materials that can carry electricity (like copper wire) are called conductors. Insulatorsm (like rubber) are materials that cannot carry electricity.

About the Speaker

Boy wearing white t-shirt standing in front of a stream
Michael Mazza as a child

Michael was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the San Fernando Valley. He got exposed to science at a young age through his grandfather, who would take him to various science and history museums across LA. Their favorite was the La Brea Tar Pits.

He went to Loyola High School where he had his first experience teaching and tutoring elementary school students. He attended Washington University in St. Louis, studying chemistry and starting a science education program in a local school in St. Louis. Michael is now at Caltech as a PhD student in Chemistry. He is a founding member of the Visiting Scientists Program at Caltech, which provides science education programs to PUSD schools, first Cleveland Elementary School and now at Madison Elementary School.

Michael loves photography, going to concerts, and the LA Dodgers.

About the Series

Science Journeys online programs are recommended for grades 8 and up, but everyone is welcome to attend. All events are held on Friday mornings at 10:00 a.m. Pacific Time.

Programs are FREE through the generosity of the Friends of Beckman Auditorium, but reservations are required.

If you have questions, please email Mary Herrera at mhh@caltech.edu.

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Michael Mazza
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