Professor talks nanotechnology, power of Scripture
By Lana Sweeten-Shults
GCU News Bureau
Just call Dr. James Tour the Jeff Gordon of the molecular world.
The Rice University synthetic organic chemist and his team are known for their work in nanocars. Designed from a single molecule, they’re essentially the smallest remote-control vehicles in the world — an assembly of atoms scientists can “drive” across a surface. The technology has advanced enough over the years that scientists even organized the world’s first nanocar race in 2017.
Tour powers his nanocars and molecular nanomachines with light that will spin the molecule’s motor at 3,000 rotations per second. These tiny machines are able to recognize particular cell surfaces, provided they’re given the right peptide, and can drill through – and kill – cells.
“We’re using it, of course, for cancer therapy and we’re looking at it to kill super bacteria,” said Tour, who is Rice’s T.T. and W.F. Chao Professor of Chemistry, Professor of Computer Science and Professor of Materials Science and NanoEngineering.
He also has made graphene — a supermaterial that is one of the strongest materials in the universe despite how thin it is (a mere one-atom thick) — out of Girl Scout cookies, cockroach legs and even dog feces. Tour and his team can take any carbon source and rearrange it at 1,000 degrees on copper to make graphene, which remains unwidely used because of its exorbitant cost (it reportedly costs tens of thousands of dollars for a postage stamp-sized amount of graphene).
“Well, why would you want to do that out of a cockroach? We showed we can do it from sugar. Let’s do it from something that has negative value. What has negative value?” Tour asked with a laugh from the audience as he pointed out the cockroach leg on the screen behind him. “… We did it with Girl Scout cookies. A box of Girl Scout cookies is $4. If you were to convert all the Girl Scout cookies, all the carbon, in a box of Girl Scout cookies to graphene, you would be able to sell that graphene for $15 billion.”
Tour, named among the 50 Most Influential Scientists in the World Today by TheBestSchools.org, also spoke briefly about his lab’s work with graphene nanoribbons and the promise those nanoribbons have shown in helping knit together damaged or severed spinal cords. His team put a 1 percent solution of graphene nanoribbons in a polyethylene glycol matrix, which is a polymer gel used in surgeries and pharmaceutical products. The mix forms an electrically active network that helps the severed ends of a spinal cord reconnect.
When tested on a rat that couldn’t walk because of a severed spine, “Two weeks after surgery, the rat is walking again,” Tour said, showing video of the results, and after three weeks, “She scored 19 out of 21 on the mobility scale 21 days after surgery.”
The process has applications in re-firing optic nerves, too, with the possibility of scientists possibly doing whole eye transplants in the future, something he said has never been done before.
“We’ve already made the deaf hear. … We can make the lame walk and the blind see,” he said. “We want to do the works of Jesus Christ right there in the laboratory.”
That’s when Tour started to speak about his walk of faith as a scientist.
Meditating on the Scriptures
In his talk, “Nanotechnology and the Power of Scriptures in the Life of a Professor,” Tour asked, “Is there a prescription for thriving in life? The Scriptures tell us there is.”
He referred to Joshua 1:8: “This Book of the Law shall not depart from your mouth. You shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it. For then you will be prosperous, and then you will have success.”
He also quoted Psalm 1:1: “How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked nor stand in the path of sinners nor sit in the seat of scoffers. But his delight is in the law of the Lord and, in this law, he meditates day and night. He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in the season. Its leaf does not whither, and in whatever he does, he prospers.”
Tour said the Scriptures are specific: “The promise is for every day. That’s the promise. … The outcome is that we will be wiser than all of our enemies, we will have more insight than all our teachers” and the promise of success “HAS to happen.”
Tour, who began his talk by getting on his knees to pray, said he started to take the word of God seriously 40 years ago. Since then, he has meditated on the Scriptures every day and has read the Bible every day.
“My reading program is, I start reading Genesis Chapter 1, and I read through Revelation Chapter 22, and when I’m done, I start again.”
The promise of success
Tour certainly has seen success in his career, which has included not just nanomachines but nanoelectronics, graphene electronics, silicon oxide electronics, lithium ion batteries, lithium metal batteries, carbon research for enhanced oil recovery and carbon supercapacitors, to name a few.
Not only did TheBestSchools.org name him among the 50 Most Influential Scientists in the World Today, R&D Magazine named him Scientist of the Year in 2013. His paper on nanocars was the most highly accessed journal article of all American Chemical Society articles in 2005. He won the NASA Space Act Award in 2008 for his development of carbon nanotube reinforced elastomers, his work is included in 650 research publications, and he touts more than 200 patents.
His steadfast belief in God’s promise is something he has shared with students, who have been invited to his home for Bible study over those four decades.
He remembers the messes the students would leave in their wake after Bible study, and at one point, “I thought, ‘This is just too much. I don’t want these students in my home anymore. And I started praying about this, ‘Lord what am I going to do?’ And I read this verse: ‘Where there are no oxen, the manger is clean. But much increase comes from the strength of the ox.’ And the power of God fell,” Tour said. “The Lord was saying to me, you can keep your little apartment clean, but if you want to see much increase in these people’s lives, it’s going to get messy, but I’ll take care of your apartment.”
Tour said he and his wife never have closed their home to Christian service.
“To this day, my wife feeds 75 college students a week in our home. We’re going to use it for the Lord’s work, and he’s blessed us.”
He shares his faith with his children, too. He wakes his children at 5:30 a.m., before he leaves for work at 6.
“My wife and I would get them on the couch, and I would read Scriptures with them. … We had family devotion from 5:30 to 6 every morning.”
He also shared stories about how “God confirms his work,” such as the time when he prayed that his lecture at his alma mater, Purdue University, would be the best seminar in that department ever in its 100-plus history and that one of his former professors, Nobel Prize winner Ei-Ishi Negishi, would tell him the seminar was “super” — a word he didn’t really use. Sure enough, Negishi stood up after his speech and proclaimed: “Super! Super!”
Then there was the time a colleague at the University of South Carolina told him he would get tenure before Tour – the same colleague who conveyed to students that he didn’t think much of Tour.
Although he almost confronted that colleague, instead, he meditated on God’s words of loving your enemies and praying for those who mistreat you. He would head to the campus’ Rutledge Chapel and include that colleague in his prayers every day.
“That guy’s career just started taking off. He got big grants. … After two years he did so well he got an offer from another university. He accepted the offer, and he left, and I was so happy,” Tour said with a laugh from the audience.
To be like Bezalel
Tour’s faith wasn’t something he grew up with. He was raised in a secular Jewish home.
“I did not grow up in an observant home. We were quite a secular home, and that made it easier for me to come to the Lord because we were not taught against Jesus. …
“My family was not excited. I remember my cousin saying, ‘What do you mean you became a Christian? You can’t, you’re Jewish!’ And my parents didn’t say much to me, and they told me why they didn’t say much to me. They said, ‘Your brother’s been through things. Your sister’s been through things. We thought it was just a fad. … They told me it was very hard on them.”
When asked about his research into nanomachines and battling cancer, he said, “I don’t have the answer for all these things. These are a decade or two away, so it’s not like I have the answer anytime soon.”
And when an audience member asked him how his faith has helped him with a scientific issue, he said, “So I don’t pray the Lord to make my reaction work,” Tour said with a smile, but he asks to be like Bezalel, the man Moses commissioned to build the Tabernacle. God filled him with wisdom and knowledge so that he knew how to work in gold, silver, fabrics, wood, stone-cutting — in many things.
“My prayer is that I would be like Bezalel. All I can do is testify of God’s grace. I have everything from computer companies … to battery companies, working across so many different fields.”
Tour closed his talk the same way he opened it.
He dropped to his knees.
“There’s nothing magic in my life,” he said. “I just believe the promise.”
Contact GCU senior writer Lana Sweeten-Shults @email@example.com or at 602-639-7901.