Mauricio Terrones

«I strongly believe that it is important that everybody do something they like and motivate on a daily basis»

Mauricio Terrones (Mexico DF, 1968) is a Physics Engineer by the Iberian-American University of Mexico City, did his PhD under the supervision of the former Nobel Laureate Harry Kroto and currently is Full Professor at the Pennsylvania State University (USA), and Director of the Center for 2D and Layered Materials and the NSF-IUCRC Center for Atomically Thin Multifunctional Coatings (ATOMIC). Mauricio has been spending the last year in Spain at the IMDEA Materials Institute due to the Talent Attraction Program of the Comunidad de Madrid.

Prof. Terrones received one of the Madrid regional Atracción de Talento fellowships for visiting researchers, that allowed him to spend a year (between 2017 and 2018) collaborating with the IMDEA Materials Institute and the Technical University of Madrid by applying the properties of novel 2D materials to different research lines.

Starting this interview, can you tell us a little bit about your trajectory and research interests?

After studying physics engineering I tried to find a job in several companies in Mexico, and as despite being first of my class in undergrad, none of those companies hired me, so I decided to undertake postgraduate studies. In my family, we are three brothers, all scientists, and my brother Humberto, who works in the same field I do, recommended me to do a PhD thesis in England with Harry Kroto. He had just discovered fullerenes and my brother was convinced that at some point he would receive a Nobel Prize for that, which ended up happening while I was doing my PhD in his group. In order to enroll his group, I rejected a Fullbright scholarship to go to the United States and went to England with a grant of the Mexican government.

In England I worked with fullerenes, nanotubes, etc., when the field was starting and there were few publications on it. I started working in a more theoretical side, determining the stability of giant fullerenes and geometries of nanotubes and then I moved on to a more practical side, synthesizing those type of structures and using electronic microscopy to characterize them. After a period as postdoc in Harry Kroto’s lab, I moved to the Max Planck Institute in Germany with a von Humboldt scholarship that allowed me to work intensively on electronic microscopy.

Summarizing, I started as physicist, followed in chemistry and then in Germany I ended working in materials science.

After Germany I went back to England for a short period of time, but I decided that I didn’t want to live there and went back to Mexico, to work in a center that had just been created then. I kept working on nanotubes and there, I also started to work with graphene. I came to Spain for 6 months, spent other 6 in Japan y afterwards I joined Penn State University (Pennsylvania, USA). There, I started working with other 2D materials apart from graphene, such as chalcogenides, molybdenum disulfide, etc. The idea was studying how the optical and electronic properties of those materials change when you produce them in a 2D layer instead of having the bulk material, and try to take advantage of the obtained new properties in fields such as electronics, optics or biology.

You work with novel nanostructured materials such as carbon nanotubes or graphene. These two materials have created a large degree of expectation on how they revolutionize the world due to their amazing properties. Where do you think they are now with respect to the well-known “Hype cycle”?

I think that carbon nanotubes have already passed the peak of inflated expectations and are now in a consolidation moment that can give place to commercial products. Graphene is in that peak yet and the other 2D materials have not even reached it. Nowadays, there is a lot of funding invested in researching graphene and other 2D materials in macro-projects such as the Graphene Flagship. In USA, although there is not an initiative at that scale, research on these type of materials is supported very intensively.

In Europe, the Graphene Flagship is doing a huge effort in economic terms and taking well measured steps in order to take graphene from labs to several industries. Do you have a vision on how is this turning out?

There is much work to do in Graphene yet. There is already some prototype of a real application, but still, there is not a commercial application so relevant that we say “here is graphene”. Taking these materials to the market takes a lot of time, work and overcoming a lot of barriers.

Biological applications even need more time, but I think that these 2D materials such as graphene, can have a larger impact than in other fields. Applications such as coatings, optoelectronic applications, sensing (not necessarily graphene in this case), nano-robots that release drugs in a controlled fashion, materials that allow to use light instead of magnetic fields in order to selectively destroy cancer cells, etc.

Up to this moment, we are seeing a lot of possibilities in structural applications, as reinforcement or coating, although the type of graphene used for these applications is graphene oxide, which normally consists on several layers of graphene, that can then be functionalized to change its properties.

Then, Van der Waals solids, formed by layers of different 2D materials that remain stacked just due to Van der Waals interactions, can have great utility as smart materials, in sensing, folding themselves or changing their form when they receive certain external stimuli such as light. There might also be interesting results in batteries.

In Europe, we’ve seen several spin-offs emerging and new companies focused in research, in the frame of the Graphene Flagship. If these companies are able to consolidate themselves in the market and become strong companies, that would already be a great success of the investment made on the graphene Flagship. Thus, I do believe this initiative is helping Europe to accelerate the deployment of graphene-based applications.

On the other hand, carbon nanotubes have been around for a longer period of time and probably their deployment in the market is already tangible. Which are the most promising applications for this and other similar materials and what are the main challenges they have yet to overcome?

One of the options that are being considered now and were also commented in the MNF 2018 congress organized by the group of Juan José Vilatela (IMDEA Materials), is that now that nanotubes productions methods are working in a large scale, it might be possible to create conductive carbon nanotube yarns that can substitute copper in applications such as transport. One of the main characteristics of those nanotubes is their lightness compared to other materials such as copper and, in transport applications, in which lowering the vehicles’ weight is a must, having this technology could be very interesting. 

Substituting copper from electrical grids would be more complex, since there, it would be necessary to obtain conductivity values much higher.

In any case, the production of these materials depends on a large number of factors. Obtaining once and again the same material with the same properties on a consistent way is not easy, and standardization is a complex issue here. However, the same happens with polymers, and they’ve been in a market for a long time.

You also work with other 2D related structures. In the same way that happens with graphite and graphene, 2D nanostructures of materials have different properties from the ones of the bulk material. Can you tell us about one that really surprised you or that you think has a lot of potential for a real world application?

In order to get to a real application, we still need to better understand the interactions that happen then a layer of one material is stacked on top of a layer of a different material, and how the properties of the resulting material change. Of course, the goal is to obtain functional materials. For example, if I put a layer of an isolating material under one of a superconducting metal, what is going to happen? Then, I could try to induce superconductivity if I have the right stack of different isolating and conductive materials. If the material is transparent, it may be applied in solar cells for example. There are many possibilities. There are more than one thousand 2D materials to play with similarly to with LEGO. The normal thing is to start with the simpler and less sensitive to air ones.

For those that are not familiar with Pennsylvania State University, what can you tell us about it regarding its main research areas and how differently it functions from a Spanish institution?

In the United States people work a lot due to degree of competitiveness to get your research funded. Everything is more expensive there. From the funding you receive for a project you get between 60 or 80% taken away from you as indirect costs. A PhD student costs around 75.000 $ per year. Success rate to get a project funded is between 4-5%. The project has to be perfect and you need to be lucky with the panel reviewing it. Therefore, surviving to get a tenure position is more complicated than in Spain or Europe in general. My impression is that in Spain, during the crisis years, many research groups have survived due to European projects, but what needs to be promoted to a larger extend are industrial projects. IMDEA Materials is really above average on this, and if you have projects with industry, there you have a very important source of funding. In the United States this is really important. In fact, it might be easier to get funding from the industry than from the government right now. Besides, working with companies is simpler from the point of view of proposal writing, since they are way shorter. You can write two pages and they can already tell if you do what they are interested in or not. The main difference then is that you have to work under their timing, something that people is not used to.

Regarding other differences, there is more bureaucracy in Spain than in the United States, although in USA there is a tendency to increase control and researchers have to spend more time doing administrative tasks than scientific ones. I have also worked in Japan and I believe there is even more bureaucracy there! There are more administrative positions that have to evaluate the performance of researchers, so they need us to fill in more forms and documents, forcing us to spend more time on that instead of bringing money to the institution. I think there is a lack of awareness from the administrative side on the importance of what researchers do.

Is there in the United States the same concern about letting citizens not related to the scientific world, what is money given to researchers used for?

Absolutely, no doubt about that. In the United States they have the taxpayer very present on everything. The government wants them to know in what their taxes are used. And although what is destined to science is a minimum part compared to what they use on defense or other things, when you have a project from the National Science Foundation (NSF), outreach and telling the results of your research activities is mandatory as well. This is good, but at the same time, a researcher ends up teaching classes, supervising students, researching, writing proposals, working with companies, filling in all the administrative form you are asked about, the ones from work meetings, disseminating results…you have a workload that you don’t have in other jobs.

When did your relationship with IMDEA Materials begin?

My relationship with IMDEA Materials started when I was here in 2010. I came to the Carlos III University with a programme similar to this one from the Community of Madrid that brought me here this time, with the goal of fostering the establishment of collaborations with research groups from Madrid. It was then when I met José Manuel Torralba. Back then, IMDEA Materials had its facilities at the Technical University of Madrid. I gave a talk and there was Javier Llorca, who I had previously met in 2008. Javier took me here to the actual building while it was yet under construction.

The downside of these programmes is that in the end, the amount of time you have is not enough, and one has to leave when you are starting to obtain results. Here at IMDEA Materials we were trying to collaborate with Javier Llorca, Juanjo Vilatela, Rubén Costa and Vinodkumar Etacheri, who is the one with whom the most interesting results are happening. We will keep up the collaborations, and also the ones with the Carlos III University.

What can you tell us about the state of science in Mexico?

In Mexico, a new president has just won the elections, and he says he wants to support science, although he has some wrong ideas about education and excellence in research. The problem in Mexico is the overall number of researchers. There are around 17.000 and 20.000 researchers in the whole country, and for a country with a total population of more 130 million, that’s nothing. On the other hand, around 0,35% of the country GDP is dedicated to research, which is quite low as well. Here in Spain, the GDP percentage for science has lowered since the crisis and there is the goal to rise it to the 2%, but if such an increase was to happen in Mexico, what would researchers do with so much money? There needs to be talent attraction programmes with fixed position, with the goal of doubling the total number of researchers from now on to the next 5-6 years. If money rises, but not the number of researchers, infrastructures will be better, but there has to be well educated people running them. Thus, Mexico is not a competitive country right now from a scientific point of view. Although there are also very good researchers. Maybe 5% of the total. Many people go back to Mexico to do research, but then they end up leaving due to the situation. In any case, things are moving and the slope is positive.

Over the years, you have done research in a lot of countries such as Mexico, United Kingdom, USA, Japan, Belgium, Sweden, Germany and Spain. If you had the chance to choose the best things of each one related to doing science, what would you get?

In Mexico we are used to work without resources and that really sharps your mind. You have to improvise to turn a problem upside down and solve it. That’s more difficult for example to Japanese people due to their culture and life philosophy. In the United Kingdom, what I liked the most is that if you are good they let you work, already from the very beginning of the research career. The drawback of this is that one that doesn’t know how to swim is going to drown. However, if you afloat you become more independent, and then you will know how to move in a better way. In the United States, the workload is too high and you don’t enjoy much your life if you work as a researcher. In Japan and Germany, they have very fixed schemes and they are very methodical. Germany has the best equipment and the best technicians, but in Japan the technicians part is missing. They are not aware of their importance and their salaries are not that good.

You have supervised a lot of PhD and Master students. Which are in your opinion the personal characteristics that somebody that wants to dedicate his/her life to science has to have?

I believe each student is different and sometimes you have to be patient to see their true potential. With time, one has to see which are the weaknesses of their students to try to reinforce them and see their stronger points to take advantage of them. Depending on how each person is, one has to adjust, see the level of supervision they need and vary it as they progress. I like the UK system: give them a project, let them do things and have they tell me what they are doing once they don’t know how to keep going forward. This way, they can find more interesting things by themselves. In numbers, I believe in my group 30% are above average, 40% are average and there is another 30% that is below average, who are the ones that need more supervision. In the end, many don’t end up having a job related to science because the academic system cannot absorb all the PhD students, so many end up working in the industry. From my group, there is many people working for Intel. The good side of keep doing research is that at a certain point, after a lot of dedication, you can obtain a tenure position (your work is analyzed every 6 years before you are granted your first appointment) and if you get it, you get a job for life, although in many occasions people do not reach the requirements to get such a position. In the United States you can be given up to 1 million of dollars to start your lab, as investment, but there has to be a return, and this is not obtained, the university will look for another person.

The system is very different to the one from the Universities in Spain, although it is more similar to the one followed in centers such as IMDEA Materials.

As you know, this interview will be read by IMDEA Materials’ alumni, but also from people that is currently working in our center. What career advice can you give to PhD students or early post-docs?

I strongly believe that it is important that everybody do something they like and motivate on a daily basis. That’s the key. I also think it is important to leave the comfort zone and learn new things, because that gives you a certain plasticity to find solutions, do research and find a job. It allows you to adapt to different environments.

How was your experience as nanotechnology National Contact Point between Mexico and the European Union?

It helped me to know how the European Commission works in terms of funding. The idea was the establish coordinated calls between Spain and Mexico. That was my goal and in the end one was made. I was the coordinator and the CE and Mexico put 10 million of euros each. I no longer hold that position, but it allowed me to connect with the European system. The sad thing is that this scheme was not supported on the long term.

What can you tell us about MNF2018, the conference organized by the group of Juan José Vilatela in Madrid in July?

It was a very successful event. It was the first edition and proof of that success is that from now on it will be celebrated on a yearly basis. The next one will take place in Houston and the following in Asia. MNF 2018 allowed people that work in the same area, carbon nanotubes to get together, something that would not happen otherwise. It was useful so that many people could meet each other. For Juanjo, as young researcher, it was really interesting, and a Special Issue with the presentations made at the event will come up in the Journal Carbon.

Last but not least, what are the things you are enjoying the most about living in Spain and what have you accomplished during your stay here?

In Spain, life quality is really good and I learnt again that it is important to keep a balance between professional and personal life. During my period here I had the chance to work in things I wasn’t expecting. I didn’t know Vinodkumar Etacheri, and as I previously mentioned, there are interesting results coming up with him and his work in batteries, so I am leaving with a really good taste.