Penn State chemist wins national award for milestone in research
David L. Allara of State College, Pa., will be honored March 25 by the world's largest scientific society for his role in developing fundamental tools with which to study organic surfaces -- such as interfaces for adhesives, biomedical implants and lubricants. He will receive the 2003 Arthur W. Adamson Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Surface Chemistry from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in New Orleans.
At Bell Labs, where he worked in the 1970s, "the questions about organic surfaces were very practical ones," said Allara, now a surface chemist and professor at Pennsylvania State University. "We had miles and miles of insulated copper wire and a continual problem of the polymer coatings deteriorating next to the wire. How could we even study it?"
Allara and his research team -- including Ralph Nuzzo, with whom he shares the award -- decided to build simple models, attaching one kind of organic molecule to a standard surface and studying how it arranged itself, responded to its environment, reacted with other molecules, and so on.
"One day Ralph and I had a bet as to what would stick on gold, so we dipped a gold-coated wafer into a solution of thiol," a simple sulfur-based molecule, he said. "We pulled it out, cleaned it off and then noticed water beaded up on it extremely well. So those molecules must have not only stuck on it but packed very tightly."
At that point they were "off and running," Allara said. "We found the tool we'd been waiting for to advance our studies," a model whose surface was so organized they could almost calibrate their instruments by it, he added.
Today researchers use Allara and Nuzzo's discoveries to keep the body's proteins from depositing on linings in artificial hearts, to keep lubricated surfaces wet and to tailor-make complex plastics.
Allara received his undergraduate degree from the University of California, Berkeley, in 1959 and his Ph.D. from the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1954. He is a member of the ACS divisions of physical, colloid and surface chemistry.
The Arthur W. Adamson Award for Distinguished Service in the Advancement of Surface Chemistry is sponsored by Occidental Petroleum Corp.