As a child, Zalman Shapiro loved to tinker around the house, disassembling clocks and taking apart appliances to see how they worked. More than 80 years later, he is still toying with anything that is -- or is not -- broken.
Dr. Shapiro's fondness for exploration extends beyond the mundane. The 89-year-old Oakland inventor, who now holds 15 patents, recently developed a new way of synthesizing diamonds that should be less expensive and more efficient than existing methods.
"This invention could be quite significant," said Jonathan Rixen, a patent attorney at Lemaire Patent Law Firm in Burnsville, Minn. "The process will make not just jewel-grade diamonds but [also] industrial ones."
Dr. Shapiro believes that his invention could lead to more diamonds being produced in the United States, slashing the annual $40 billion import bill for cut and uncut diamonds. Increased availability and lower prices for diamonds also could allow scientists to develop new uses for the stones.
Despite the enormous implications of Dr. Shapiro's recent invention, it is far from the highlight of his career. The Canton, Ohio, native has followed his scientific bent into some of the more interesting issues of the past several decades.
During his master's program at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore during World War II, he studied the erosion of warships' large gun barrels by high temperature and pressure gases. The work for the National Defense Research Council helped extend the operational life of the weapons.
After getting a doctoral degree in physical chemistry from Johns Hopkins in 1948, he took a job in the research laboratory of Westinghouse Corp. in Monroeville and then moved to the company's Bettis Atomic Power Laboratory. With that step, Dr. Shapiro would embark on a long career in the nuclear power industry.
There, he worked on developing processes and equipment necessary for producing pure crystal bar zirconium, a material needed to make the cladding for the fuel rods of nuclear reactors.
The process also was used in production of hafnium, a substance used to control the power output of reactors. That made him "an important actor in the development of the first nuclear submarine," said Bernard Cohen, professor emeritus of physics at the University of Pittsburgh.
Westinghouse honored Dr. Shapiro with the Silver W Order of Merit, the highest honor bestowed on an employee, making him the youngest recipient at age 33 in corporate history.
He left the company to start the Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp. in 1957.
"It seemed to me that it was the beginning of a new era where nuclear power would be very important, and I felt that I was getting in on the ground floor," said Dr. Shapiro.
As he described it, the company focused on peaceful applications for nuclear energy and produced enriched uranium, which was used in nuclear-powered submarines and power plants. In 1967, in response to a proposal from the Atomic Energy Commission, Numec developed the first successful nuclear-powered cardiac pacemaker.
"Numec was very instrumental in managing the chemistry of plutonium," said Dr. Cohen. "They did very good work."
The company ran into controversy when approximately 200 pounds of uranium was unaccounted for from processing losses in the 1960's. The FBI investigated and found no wrongdoing. The company paid nearly $1 million to the Atomic Energy Commission for the value of the uranium.
In 1970, Dr. Shapiro rejoined Westinghouse, where he worked on a breeder reactor project to design a nuclear reactor that generates more material for a nuclear fission reaction than it consumes. He retired in 1983 but stayed on as a consultant until 1985.
His retirement has not been idle. He started his own consulting business, which advised on technical as well as business matters until 2006.
Meanwhile, there's that new patented process involving diamonds to work on.
On June 16, Dr. Shapiro received his patent certificate from John J. Doll, acting undersecretary of commerce for intellectual property at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Alexandria, Va.
Dr. Shapiro's technique -- developed entirely from theory, not experimentation -- uses a "float" method that passes tiny diamond seeds through a fountain of liquid metal.
The process requires a lower temperature and pressure than current methods that either mimic conditions found in the earth's crust or spray high-temperature carbon plasma onto a diamond seed. In addition, his process can produce multiple stones at the same time.
Diamond is the hardest known substance, has a high refractive index and is chemically resistant, all properties that make the stone ideal for a variety of industrial applications such as lasers, computer chips and drills.
"It's one of the more detailed patents that I've worked on. There's a lot of research, physics and chemistry behind it," Mr. Rixen said. "It's definitely impressive and not the norm."
Dr. Shapiro and his son, Joshua, are looking into getting development grants from government agencies for the synthesis of diamonds. They also are approaching companies to commercialize and manufacture diamonds, and discussing funding for further development with individual investors.
Apart from his scientific pursuits, Dr. Shapiro has raised money for the United Jewish Federation and served on the Penn State Science and Technology steering committee. He also was on the board of Americans for Energy Independence, an organization he founded in 1975 during the OPEC oil embargo to educate about the necessity for alternative sources of energy.
"He doesn't have leisure time," said his daughter, Deborah Shapiro. "I'm awed by his brainpower. He's always working on something."
In 2000, Dr. Shapiro worked to start the Tolerance Project, which arranged for 10th-graders at local schools to take a trip to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., said Marion Taube, a volunteer chaperone for the program. "He did all the planning and fund raising. It wouldn't have happened without him."
The program operated for six years but was discontinued due to lack of funding. Dr. Shapiro hopes it will resume this winter.
"I think there are important things to do, holes and gaps in our societal situations," he explained. He's not ready to stop patching holes anytime soon.
CORRECTION: In the 1960s, the FBI investigated the loss of 200 pounds of uranium by Nuclear Materials and Equipment Corp., which was founded by Zalman Shapiro. The company paid about $1 million for the unrecovered uranium. Some details about the case were incorrect in the original version of this story.
Liyun Jin can be reached at email@example.com or 412-263-1410.