Rice nanotechnology pioneer Robert Hauge dies

Richard Smalley, left, and Robert Hauge supervise as Rice student build the world's longest model of a nanotube at Rice in 2005.

Distinguished faculty fellow was one of world’s most highly cited chemists

Robert Hauge, 77, a distinguished faculty fellow in chemistry and in materials science and nanoengineering, died March 17 after a long illness. He recently celebrated his 50th year at Rice University, nearly all of them as a faculty fellow.

Hauge was integral to Rice’s rise as a center for the development of nanotechnology, said Wade Adams, a longtime friend and colleague who was director of the former Richard E. Smalley Institute for Nanoscale Science and Technology.

“Bob’s resume did not look substantial until you got to the number of papers and citations that bore his name,” Adams said. “His impact was that he was so creative he could make anything you were working on better by thinking of something you hadn’t. That’s very powerful.

“He didn’t care about the trappings of science,” Adams said. “His ambition was to do good science. He did that here.”

Robert Hauge at the celebration last August of his 50th anniversary at Rice. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Robert Hauge at the celebration last August of his 50th anniversary at Rice. Photo by Jeff Fitlow

Though Hauge retired late last year and had become wheelchair-bound, he continued to work on two active carbon nanomaterial projects and attended group meetings at Rice into March of this year.

A native of Sun Prairie, Wis., Hauge earned a bachelor’s degree at Loras College in 1960 and a Ph.D. at the University of California-Berkeley in 1965. At Berkeley he worked in the lab of physical chemist Leo Brewer, considered the founder of modern high-temperature chemistry.

Hauge joined Rice as a postdoctoral researcher at the invitation of chemist and fellow Berkeley grad John Margrave. Hauge further developed the skills learned in Brewer’s lab and contributed to groundbreaking work in spectroscopy, fluorine chemistry and high-temperature inorganic chemistry. He remained at Rice as a faculty fellow, rising to distinguished faculty fellow in 1992.

He later became a close colleague of the late Richard Smalley, a Nobel laureate for the discovery of the carbon fullerene and founder of what has become Rice’s Smalley-Curl Institute.

“Bob was a machine builder,” Adams said. “If you went into his office, you’d find six or seven notebooks full of sketches and schematics of things he was thinking about making. Smalley said if you can build a machine to measure something that nobody’s measured before, that’s an original piece of science. That’s how you discover things.

“Bob never won a Nobel because he didn’t make an astonishing fundamental discovery like Rick did, but along the way he did a lot of what Smalley would consider original science, making systems that made measurements or creative materials that other people couldn’t.”

Hauge was renowned at Rice for his love of collaboration, a quality that led to his status as one of the most highly cited chemists in the world, according to an ISI/Thomson Reuters ranking that placed him at No. 13 on a 2011 list of the 100 top chemists of the previous decade. He worked with and co-authored papers with scores of Rice researchers.

He and Smalley were a good match, Adams said. “The carbon nanotube game and Bob were made for each other. It was high-temperature chemistry. Everything Rick did, Bob was there as his chief scientist.” That included the development of HiPco, a high-pressure carbon monoxide process for growing high-quality carbon nanotubes, he said.

Rice chemistry professor emeritus Robert Curl, who shared the Nobel with Smalley, noted Hauge had no problem taking on difficult projects that involved dangerous materials like liquid hydrogen and helium.

“What did he do after surviving that? He decided to work with Smalley on the apparatus that used large quantities of highly compressed carbon monoxide,” Curl recalled at a celebration of Hauge’s anniversary last August. “Quite lethal and it has no odor. And he survived that as well. He’s got guts.”

“Working with Rick required a certain courage,” said Hauge’s longtime friend Phil Brooks, a Rice professor of chemistry.

“Bob and Rick used to have legendary scientific arguments, like you don’t see much anymore,” Adams said. “They could go on for three days, arguing with each other. There was a whiteboard outside my office when I got here in 2002. Rick and Bob would meet out there for coffee and pick up the argument they left off the day before, fighting back and forth with new data they’d come up with.

“Finally, after several days of this, one of them would say, ‘You know, I think you’re right.’ And that was it. And a day or two later they’d have an argument about something else.”

Rice chemist Bruce Weisman, a frequent collaborator, said Hauge was “one of the rare scientists with whom you can have a serious and contentious scientific discussion without the complications and the burden of egos or ambition or self-promotion getting in the way. That’s really a rare treat and very important for scientific progress.”

“Bob has been a dedicated mentor,” said Kathleen Matthews, former dean of the Wiess School of Natural Sciences. Matthews said Hauge was quick to step up when Smalley died in 2005, “leaving multiple students and staff who needed guidance. Stepping into this scientific breach, Bob was able to provide much-needed supervision, encouragement and mentoring to get people through a transition that was extremely difficult.”

Hauge was well-known for his own pioneering research in carbon nanotechnology, including numerous methods for growing, characterizing and modifying carbon nanotubes. His technique to grow long carpets of nanotubes from the catalyst down — known as “odako” for their resemblance to Japanese kites — and subsequent work on water-assisted growth advanced the technique of growing forests of long nanotubes, which quickly became useful for sensors and filters.

His technique for separating and modifying carbon nanotubes was named one of “five killer patents” by the MIT Technology Review in 2004.

He had no equal as an engineer of scientific devices, Weisman said. “Bob was part of the team that led to the discovery and the detailed interpretation of carbon-nanotube fluorescence, and that turned out to be a big deal,” he said. “I’m very proud the papers we wrote about carbon-nanotube spectroscopy are at the top of his citation list.

“I’ve always found Bob to be an expert and creative and bold experimentalist,” Weisman said at the August event. “He really understands the value of building a unique and specialized apparatus to explore new scientific phenomena. Throughout his career he tackled thorny technical problems to turn experimental visions into reality.”

Hauge became a political activist at Berkeley in the 1960s and carried his passion for politics to Houston, where he worked for the Democratic Party and ran the Texas office for George McGovern during his 1972 presidential campaign. There, Adams recalled, one of Hauge’s colleagues was a young Bill Clinton.

“Bob is what I would characterize as a Rice treasure, a person of intellect, intensity, insight and perhaps most importantly, inspiration in his thought processes,” Matthews said. “He chose a path of research and the freedom to do the research about which he was passionate and that inspired him.”

Brooks described Hauge as “resolute, determined, optimistic and friendly. And you can add to that smart and dedicated and hard-working and protective.”

His wife of 23 years, Djehane Hauge, died in 2011. Hauge is survived by his stepdaughter, Angie Gibson; a granddaughter, Mia Gibson; and four siblings, Tom Hauge and his wife, Mary Jon; Mike Hauge and wife, Tina; Betty and Dick Lubinski; and Mary and Stan Wagner.

Respecting Bob’s wishes, no memorial services will be held. He wanted his life’s work and his many friends and colleagues to be his memorial.

Donations may be made to his favorite charities: The Djehane Sadek Hauge Foreign Languages Fund at Rice’s Glasscock School of Continuing Studies, the Richard Smalley Seminar Fund in Rice’s Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering or The Center in Houston.

About Mike Williams

Mike Williams is a senior media relations specialist in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.