John Corbett looks at a model of one of the materials he discovered.
Discovery, by definition, is to obtain sight or knowledge of something for the first time. It could also describe what long-time chemist John Corbett has pursued most every day of his 60-plus-year career at Ames Laboratory.
“I’ve spent most of my career working with rare-earth and related metals trying to find novel or unusual compounds,” Corbett says, gesturing toward a period chart hanging on the wall in his office. “If you consider ternary compounds – some call them alloys – from just the metals, there are over 10,000 possibilities. So there’s lots to consider, and I just continue to run reactions and keep my eyes open.”
In keeping his eyes open, he and his coworkers have discovered hundreds of new materials, including the recent discovery of the first quasicrystal containing sodium, in a sodium-
gold-gallium compound. A paper on that finding, to be published soon in Angewandte Chemie. will be the 485th of his career.
With the exception of a few days while he awaited proper clearance, Corbett has had the same office – 353 Spedding Hall – since he started at the Lab and Iowa State University in 1952. He wound up in Ames because at the time, “there were only three or four job openings in the whole country in inorganic chemistry, and one of the best was here. And at that time, you could count the number of solid-state inorganic chemists (in the U.S.) on one hand.”
Corbett chose that career path via a stint in the military during World War II. Coming out of high school in Yakima, Wash., he enlisted in the Navy rather than be drafted. He enrolled in officer training and was two years into becoming an engineer when the war ended, which also brought his Naval career to a halt.
“I had half an engineering degree, but had taken a number of chemistry courses, so I went back home to Washington and got a degree in chemistry,” he says, “then went on to get a Ph.D. in physical chemistry.”
He credits Ames Lab with making his work, particularly in the early years, possible.
“There was really nowhere else I could have done the work,” Corbett says. “The innovation of using nonreactive tantalum containers was developed here and allowed us to carry out reactions that weren’t possible before.”
Improvements in analytical instrumentation have also contributed greatly to the field and his work. The Ames Laboratory’s service capabilities and having “four diffractometers within 75 feet” of his office have made the work easier and produced much faster results.
Although he gave up classroom teaching after 48 years, Corbett has no plans to give up research and passing along his expertise to additional generations of graduate students and postdocs.
“I’ve been very blessed and lucky. My health is still good and I’m still having fun,” he says. “Besides, I can’t imagine doing anything else!”
~ by Kerry Gibson