the world academy of sciences for the advancement of science in developing countries


21 November 2011

CNR Rao wins 2011 Ernesto Illy Trieste Science Prize

The immediate past president of TWAS wins the prize for "monumental contributions to the frontiers of materials science."

CNR Rao wins 2011 Ernesto Illy Trieste Science PrizeCNR Rao, Linus Pauling research professor and honorary president of the Jawaharlal Nehru Center for Advanced Scientific Research and immediate past president of TWAS, the academy of sciences for the developing world, has been named the winner of the 2011 Ernesto Illy Trieste Science Prize.

The prize, which is designed to give international recognition and visibility to eminent scientists in the developing world, is sponsored by the world-renowned coffee maker, illycaffè, supported by the Ernesto Illy Foundation and administered by TWAS. It carries a USD100,000 cash award. This year’s award was given in the field of materials science.

Over a distinguished career that spans more than five decades, Rao has left his mark on scientific research, education, administration and policy, both in his home country of India and throughout the world.

Rao’s broad-ranging research, focusing on the characterization, synthesis and design of new materials, has enabled him to become one of the world’s most respected scientists. Meanwhile, his passionate life-long commitment to strengthening scientific research and education in India has made him a revered and influential figure in his home country.

In the 1950s, Rao was one of a small group of pioneering scientists who propelled the emerging field of solid state chemistry to the forefront of global science. He is particularly noted for his research on metal oxides, nanomaterials and graphene.

From an intellectual perspective, he has been a key figure in the integration of chemical physics and materials chemistry. From a technical perspective, he has made innovative use of a wide variety of cutting-edge technologies, ranging from photoelectron spectroscopy to electron microscopy to diffraction.

As a young, talented scientist with PhD from Purdue University in the United States and postdoctoral researcher at the University of California, Berkeley, USA, Rao returned to his home country in 1959 to assume a position at the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) in Bangalore, India's oldest and most prestigious research institute. In 1963, he moved to the Indian Institute of Technology (ITT), Kanpur, where he became head of the chemistry department.

At the time, science in India was hamstrung by poor facilities, inadequate funding, low salaries and bureaucratic roadblocks that made the purchase of equipment and supplies a slow and tedious process. Yet, Rao was determined to build a well-equipped laboratory for solid state and materials chemistry capable of competing with laboratories in developed countries.

Pursuing his dream, Rao returned to the IISc where he did indeed build a world-class laboratory and later served as director from 1984 to 1994. In 1989, he also became the founding president of the Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research (JNCASR), Bangalore, serving in that position until 1999. Since his retirement, he has continued to pursue an active research agenda.

Over the course of his long career, Rao has published 45 books, and more than 1,500 articles. More recently, he has written several children’s books designed to spur interest in science among young people.

Rao has received more than 50 honorary degrees from universities in India and abroad. He is a fellow at the Indian Academy of Sciences and Indian National Science Academy, and a foreign member of numerous science academies worldwide, including the US National Academy of Sciences, the Royal Society in the UK, the French Academy of Sciences, the Russian Academy of Sciences, the Japan Academy, the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and the Pontifical Academy of Sciences.

In terms of science policy, he has been a driving force behind the success of TWAS, first as one of the founding members in 1983 and then as president from 2000 to 2007. He remains active in the Academy’s affairs to this day. Rao has also played a central role on many governmental agencies and committees in India, most notably chairing the prime minister’s science advisory council since 2009.

In terms of scientific research, Rao has helped to shape the contours of materials science, lending his keen intelligence, deep insights and well-honed technical skills to a discipline that is now recognized as one of the pre-eminent fields of “science for development” in the 21st century.

Broad applications of materials science have impacted – and will undoubtedly continue to impact – key aspects of society and the economy in both the developing and developed worlds – ranging from improvements in communications and the generation and distribution of energy, to enhanced access to safe drinking water, to more precise delivery of pharmaceuticals for the treatment of disease.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Rao’s ground-breaking research on non-organic transition metal oxides enhanced scientific understanding of high-temperature superconductivity. His novel research subsequently led to the identification of large-scale, electronic-phase separation in metal oxides and to the discovery of new routes for multiferroics.

He then turned his attention to the intricate interface between organic and inorganic hybrid materials. More recently, he has focused his attention on nanomaterials, exploring, for example, the liquid-liquid interface to generate nanocrystals and uncovering a simple method for separating semiconducting and metallic carbon nanotubes.

Rao’s research has been consistently multi-dimensional in terms of both the broad range of materials he has explored and the wide-ranging techniques he has tapped to examine these materials. He has developed new and novel methods of synthesis and design, prepared and characterized a number of new classes of materials and nanostructures, and dissected the formation of complex structures.

His work has crossed the once distinct boundaries between inorganic, organic and hybrid materials, and has cast revealing light on the relationship between simple one- or two-dimensional structures and more complex multi-dimensional structures – a relationship that plays a significant role to the bonding of materials.

For all of these reasons and more, CNR Rao has been chosen the 2011 recipient of the Ernesto Illy Trieste Science Prize in materials science.

Rao's significant contributions:

  • Conducted an independent synthesis on the first liquid-nitrogen cuprate semiconductor
  • Identified large-scale electronic phase separation in metal oxides
  • Prepared Y-junction and metallic nanotubes
  • Ascertained a simple method to separate semiconducting and metallic carbon nanotubes
  • Formulated new methods for the synthesis of graphene
  • Discovered new bifunctional oxide materials
  • Created a strategy to determine the experimental charge densities of atoms in organic molecular crystals
  • Determined how simple oxyanions and selenate can be used to build complex inorganic architectures
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