Tiju Thomas

Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering
Indian Institute of Technology Madras
Sardar Patel Road, Chennai 600036, Tamil Nadu, India


ph. no: +91 8056456442
email id: tt332@cornell.edu or tijuthomas@iitm.ac.in

Our Research Group

Applied Nanostructures Engineering and Nanochemistry (ANEN) Research Group

ID6020 Panel Discussion notes (28 Sep., 2017)


I am Tiju Thomas, an Assistant Professor at the Department of Metallurgical and Materials Engineering (Indian Institute of Technology Madras, IITM) in Chennai, India.

Before coming to IITM, I was working as a Faculty Fellow at the Materials Research Center in the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. Prior to that I was on an industry-academia joint project involving University of Toronto, Memorial University of Newfoundland, and Lumentra Inc. (a start up company, specializing in light emitting devices). Before that I was pursuing my graduate degrees (MS, PhD) at the School of Engineering in Cornell University. I was enrolled in an interdisciplinary program, which enabled me to work with electrical engineers, applied physicists and solid state chemists. These years, I think, informed much of my current research philosophy. Before leaving for Cornell, I was pursuing my masters (M.S (Engg.)) at the Theoretical Sciences Unit in Jawaharlal Nehru Centre for Advanced Scientific Research. Here is where I learnt the essentials of solid state sciences, which has stayed with me ever since. I am grateful to all my teachers and colleagues, from whom I continue to learn.

In IITM, our group, the Applied Nanostructures Engineering and Nanochemistry research group focuses on developing compositionally complex oxides, oxynitrides and nitrides, and nanometals for achieving engineering ends. Problems concerning functional properties of materials (electrical and electronic, optical, magnetic; applied surfaces and interfaces) are of abiding interest to us. In particular solar energy harvesting, efficient light emission systems, and remediation materials have been the group's recent focus. Much of the science we do is easily extensible to sensor materials research as well. Eco-friendly, green engineering perspectives guide the synthetic chemical and fabrication routes that the group develops for fulfilling it goals. Furthermore correlations between synthesis, materials processes, and device performance is an increasingly common theme in the group's activities. Because of our inter-disciplinarity, we tend to work with students and collaborate with faculty members from very diverse backgrounds. In the recent past we have worked extensively with chemists, physicists, electrical engineers, chemical and polymer engineers, materials and metallurgical engineers, mechanical engineers. An "applied" approach to materials science makes this trans- and inter-disciplinary work possible.

Research oriented students, with a sense of camaraderie and fellowship are welcome!

We are always happy to engage with students from any engineering, or science (chemistry, physics, applied mathematics) background. We currently have a diverse group, and will continue to be very diversity friendly. Students desirous of doing research in nanotechnology, complex and hybrid materials, functional ceramics, quantum nanostructures, and devices, are welcome to write to us. We always have problems that are of experimental and/or computational nature. We welcome you to write to us, explaining the skills you would like to work on, and the kind of project you would like to engage in. We will be happy to facilitate your growth, by being mindful of your background.

About this website

Much of what I have written is with the aim of conveying the excitement of materials engineering and science, in a language that is accessible to people who have high school education. The website has my opinions strewn all over it, and these are meant to be just that: Opinions with a capital 'O'.

For the technical details provided, I owe all the responsibility. Please point out errors, if you find any. Suggested corrections, if found accurate, would be promptly and gratefully incorporated. And for the opinions expressed here; no one else bears any responsibility. Opinions about issues like the 'future of materials technology' and nanotechnology are all debatable, and you will find practitioners who think differently from me. Hence it is up to you to go beyond what is available here. In fact, I urge you to read up as much as possible on materials science. As you learn more about it, you will slowly start unravelling the beauty of the subject.

Here I will try to provide sufficient information about what I do, within the overall context of materials science. I will talk quite often about what I do, and what my terrific colleages and collaborators do. Regardless of your background, I hope you find some interesting take-home messages from these pages. I am interested in talking to you, whether you are an undergraduate, graduate, a doctorate, an industrialist, or an amateur scientist. I am always looking to learn new things. My interests are broad, to the point wherein you will be interesting to me, no matter what you do, and where you come from!

Welcome to my space!

--- Tiju

Materials Science and Engineering Chemistry

We are surrounded by matter. Materials make up our world. Our experiences, including our very first human experiences involve interaction with matter. At a very basic level, all of engineering involves understanding and manipulating matter at all possible scales, and achieving complex functionalities. Modern physical and chemical principles and tools provide us with the abilities to probe and manipulate matter at length and time scales which were hitherto unreachable. The extraordinary "dialogue" between the traditions of physical, chemical, biological, and engineering sciences within the discipline, makes materials science a very fertile interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary ground.

Materials science is a very empowering discipline. Why do I say so? Because, we deal with properties of materials. Materials scientists think about engineering properties of materials with the eventual goal of putting the material in good use. The subject is enormously empowering because once you get a "hang" of its basic principles, you are capable of having an intelligent conversation with almost any kind of scientist or technologist. This is so because scientists of all categories are dealing with the material world. They are interested studying it, manipulating it, and doing clever things using the matter that they lay their hands on.

The human civilization, and its trajectory is very often determined by its handle on materials technology. It is no surprise that human history is divided on the basis of the most important engineering material that was used in that specific era. This is why the "epochs" of our history are called stone age, iron age, bronze age etc. Some people think, the current era must be called silicon or information age. The science and engineering we do fall within that long tradition of materials science, wherein there is a serious quest for defining directions for the upcoming future.

I think it is reasonable to argue that the science of materials existed for as long as human beings existed. Of course, strictly speaking, I am not using the word science as it is used in its modern context. But I am using the word "science" in its original sense, which means "knowledge" (Science derives from the Latin word "Scientia" which means knowledge). My point is that human beings have the innate curiosity to ask questions regarding the world around us, and almost all questions we ask about the physical universe involves materials! No wonder materials science is so interdisciplinary and multidisciplinary.

More formally, material science is often defined as the science of engineering materials. The fundamental goal of a materials scientist is to use insights from physics and chemistry to design a material of engineering relevance. Given that much of the atomistic understanding of materials is a fairly recent phenomena, it is no wonder that the tradition of materials science (as is formally defined) is fairly young, when compared to the more classical disciplines (such as physics, chemistry and mathematics). Hence despite the fact that people have been thinking about materials for several millenia, its modern trends are really a few decades old at best. This makes pedagogy within materials science education a particular challenge. I am often confounded by this issue; but have discovered that that engineering chemistry can serve as a nice bridge between fundamental physics and engineering, which in turn can aid lots of materials research. This is how I have chosen to pursue materials science. However, by no means is it the only way to do materials science. There are almost as many different pedagogies and research methodologies as there are materials scientists.

In this website, you will see the various activities we do. You will notice a common pattern: we are driven by an engineering goals. It is the engineering goal that lays out the materials requirements for us. We then set out to design the material using ideas from chemistry and physics. Synthetic chemistry is our best friend. In particular most of the synthesis we do is based on insights from soft chemistry, and solid state chemistry. In some cases, we run the last mile by using the material for making a device, or a practical reactor of some sort.

There is an emerging side to the science of materials, which is worth addressing here. Materials scientists have so far demonstrated remarkable ingenuity to come up with new materials, and in some cases modify an already existing material for a variety of applications. The environmental impact of their activities has been a thing that was placed on the "back burner" for way too long. Energy is the basic currency of any civilization, and the most handy source of energy today are the fossil fuels. We have reached a point wherein materials scientists must carefully deliberate about their collective practice, and its environmental impact. We must minimize our carbon footprint, and if possible remedy the extrordinary damage human industry has inflicted on Mother Nature. This is a demand that cannot be ignored any more. We take this need to minimize carbon footprint and overall environmental damage very seriously in our lab. This is why we most often do materials science using "green chemical" methods. You will see some of these practical themes consistently recurring in our projects.

My mentors and teachers

Much of what we are today, is because of those who were willing to sincerely spend time with us. Such people, wish well for us, and teach us the essentials of life. Teachers have the unique responsibility of nurturing the minds of the generation to come. I believe a few people were particularly responsible for where I am right now. I wish to give credit to my academic mentors, whose outlook influenced much of my own philosophy, which in turn has shaped my approach towards teaching and research. In any such "acknowldegements" section, one inevitably ends up missing out of several names. Hence I would begin by saying that I am grateful to the academic fraternity that continues to shape me. In particular, I owe aplenty to my teachers -- from both past, and present.

I began my academic career as an electrical engineer, with a deep interest in fundamental science. Semiconductors in particular fascinated and puzzled me. Prof. Umesh Waghmare, my advisor at JNCASR, gave me the essential foundation to understand much of physics of semiconductors. His attention to details, sincerity, mathematical ingenuity, and academic excellence continue to be a source of motivation for me.

Prof. Michael Spencer (Fields: Electrical Engineering/Applied Physics/Materials Science, Cornell University), with whom I pursued my doctoral degree, is a unique combination of creativity, cheer and curiosity. He taught me that a teacher's primary job is to inspire students. He introduced me to experimental materials science, and is directly responsible for my appreciation for careful experimental design. Prof. Lester F. Eastman, is considered by many as the father of GaN electronics. My introduction to GaN was through a memorable discussion with Prof. Eastman. He went on to be on my academic committee, and was always available for a friendly scientific conversation, through out my graduate studies. Something that struck me was his remarkable humility and creativity, along with his desire to support every one of his students.

Prof. Francis DiSalvo from Cornell Chemistry and Applied Physics is a man of many talents. Along with a rare intellect, he is also gifted with a very rare heart. His willingness to help his students encourages me to do the same for those who choose to learn with me. He taught me the importance of maintaining a "big picture" view of things, even as one navigates through the nitty-gritty details of a scientific problem. His ability to put a scientific result in the right context, and his passion for communicating science to the masses, has informed my much of my scientific outlook. Here I must mention the encouragement I received from Prof. Roald Hoffmann. My interactions with Prof. Hoffmann gave me hope that one could be truly multi-dimensional, achieving excellence in all that one chooses for her/himself. For those who do not know, Prof. Hoffmann is one of the most acclaimed chemists of our times. What is little known about him is that he is also a poet, playwright, and philosopher. The little interaction I had with him, left a lasting impression on me.

Prof. Kristin Poduska (Physics, Memorial University) was responsible for my Canadian stint. She taught me the art of science, which involves meticulous planning, resource management, systematic exploration, careful interpretation of data. She emphasized the importance of persistence in ensuring the completion of a research project. Her commitment to her students, and the numerous ways in which she made herself accessible to her students provided me with a model to follow. Prof. Cynthia Goh (Chemistry, University of Toronto) is hugely responsible for the need I have for being socially responsible. She taught me that science must impact our neighbours. She also emphasized the need to keep the interests of one's students above one's own interest. Prof. M. R. Srinivasan also deserves a special mention here. In my mind, he is a very special person. His extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge, combined with his humility and accessibility continues to be a source of hope and inspiration for me. I would also like to thank teachers who taught me during my childhood. In particular, Ms. S. Parvathy, Ms. Chandrika, Ms. Pankajam, and Ms. Munira Banu, are all in one way or the other responsible for my deep interest in science and technology, and my passion for science education. Lynn Podhaski's contribution to my current situation is remarkably important. He has been a friend, philosopher and a guide. But for his gentle wisdom and generous spirit, I would not have learnt to discover and accept myself. To him, I am indebted for life. My special pals, Edward Moran and Elliot Bassman have been a source of inspiration for me. Their style of work helped me realize that one should work in a manner that is one's own; there is great worth and virtue in doing so. Faik Bouhrik's remarkable intellect and many gifts, along with his simplicity and kindness have convinced me that an integrated pursuit of knowledge is truly possible.

Now that I am in IITM, I continue to learn from my wonderful colleagues from across the institute. They are all my mentors and teachers in one way or the other. You can find out about many fruitful collaborations that I am part of, by checking the "research section" of this website.

IITM: Musings of a resident

The Indian Institute of Technology Madras, located in Chennai (India), is a place with a very unique character. To begin with let me tell you this: no matter where you are from, you will be impressed by the people who inhabit this campus. An IITMite is cheerful, helpful, socially responsible, hard working and a person with a keen intellect. If you are scientifically inclined, you will certainly find at least a few people with your interests here. This is so because there is exceptional diversity of scientific activity happening on-campus.

IITMites are privileged to be in a very peaceful and calm campus. We exist in this microcosm which is somewhat separate from the rest of Bangalore. When you step out of the campus, the difference between campus and off-campus life-styles is abundantly visible. We are privileged, in more than a few ways. Hence we must give back to the human society in more than one way.

Conversations on-campus tend to be rich, and full of information exchange. One can learn a great deal through interactions with colleagues (students, faculty members, staff etc.). Topics discussed over the coffee table include nibble bits from various disciplines which include science, politics, policy making, history, philosophy, religion, and art. In that sense, IITM has a very "university feel" to it. However it is also quite different (and quite small) when compared to a regular degree granting university in India or U.S. This makes it possible for IITMites to know one another. If you do your graduate studies here, chances are that you will end up meeting most people on-campus, at least once, by the end of your degree.

If you have never been to IITM, I would recommend that you visit us. Especially if you are a science buff or a techno-geek, you will find kindred spirits hovering here!