“MSE Is Not Just A Subject; It’s A Constantly Evolving Universe Of Possibilities”

By Alec Arbia, Written Communications Assistant

Professor Yuanyuan Zhu on June 7, 2022. (Peter Morenus/UConn Photo)

MSE Assistant Professor Yuanyuan Zhu; Director InToEMCenter, Innovation Partnership Building | UConn Tech Park

UConn Professor Yuanyuan Zhu first got into the field of materials science and engineering (MSE) because she found it fascinating. “When I was in college, I realized that MSE was this amazing blend of chemistry, physics, and engineering, all rolled into one. That interdisciplinary aspect was a big draw for me, and it made the subject matter incredibly complex but interesting. What keeps inspiring me in MSE is the captivating blend of possibilities that it offers. We’re in this amazing era in materials characterization, as we can dig deep into the atomic arrangement, figure out the exact chemical makeup in specific spots, and unravel the mysteries of why materials behave the way they do.”

What’s even cooler, Zhu went on to say, is that MSE isn’t just about seeing things at the tiniest scale. “My research focuses on going beyond the static and isolated views we often get. We want to understand how materials work in action, how they degrade over time, and – most importantly – how we can make them last longer or even recover their performance. MSE is the thrill of limitless possibilities and the chance to apply all of this knowledge to solve real-world problems. That’s what keeps me hooked in this incredible field!”

Zhu’s current research is about connecting the dots between the tiniest building blocks of matter – like atoms and nanoscale structures – and the big-picture physical and chemical properties of materials. “It’s essentially about understanding how interactions at a fundamental scale affect the way materials behave on a larger scale. To do this, we’re using some cutting-edge tools and techniques, like in-situ environmental Transmission Electron Microscopy (ETEM). This technology lets us watch materials in action while they’re under different operation conditions, almost like capturing a live movie of their behavior at the nanoscales. We’ve also jumped into the world of Deep Learning-based computer vision. It’s a bit like teaching computers to see and analyze materials the way a scientist would, but with significantly improved statistically meaningful representations.”

Infographic of Professor Yuanyuan Zhu’s research theme for advanced in-situ environmental microscopy.

Professor Yuanyuan Zhu’s research theme for advanced in-situ environmental microscopy.

In a nutshell, “our research is all about uncovering the secrets of how materials respond when they’re put to work – including under normal operation conditions as well as under extreme accident conditions for safety evaluation. We’re looking into how materials evolve, how they perform, and how we can use this knowledge to develop better catalysts, explore safer fusion energy, and contribute to a more sustainable future. It’s an exciting journey, and we’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible.”

An important part of this research is its real-world application. “By delving into the dynamic behaviors of atoms and nanoscale structures, and linking them to macroscopic materials properties, we’re uncovering a realistic picture about how things work under technologically relevant conditions. For instance, we’re diving deep into fusion energy materials, which could be a game-changer. If we figure out how materials behave under extreme fusion reactor conditions, we might unlock a whole new world of clean and sustainable energy sources. That could mean a future with way less reliance on fossil fuels.”

Zhu said that the best way to think about how in-situ materials characterization matters to everyone is like this: “Imagine if we could make industrial chemical processes cleaner and cheaper. That would mean less pollution in the air and more affordable fuels, which is a win for everyone. That’s the kind of thing we’re exploring with catalysts and their regeneration strategy, making the production more eco-friendly and cost-effective. Simply, our research isn’t just about science in a lab. It’s about making things work better, safer, and greener – which could benefit individuals, businesses, and whole industries. It’s a pretty exciting journey we’re on!”

When asked about the importance of including students in such incredible research, Zhu said that “working with students isn’t just beneficial; it’s essential to our research. It’s like adding a turbo boost to the research in this field, and it’s a win-win situation. For one, teaching and mentoring students sharpens my ability to communicate complex scientific concepts effectively. When I can explain something to a student in a way that they understand, it deepens my own understanding too. But perhaps the most exciting part is seeing students grow and develop. Watching them apply what they’ve learned to real-world research problems and witnessing their “aha” moments is incredibly rewarding. It’s like passing the torch to the next generation of scientists and researchers, and it fills me with hope for the future of our field.”

Earlier this year, Zhu was granted the NSF Early Career Award in support of her research project titled “CAREER: Mechanistic Understanding and Strategies to Improve the Regeneration of Supported Nickel Catalysts for Methane Conversion.”

Zhu explained this research project as one that “addresses a critical issue in the field of thermal catalysis, particularly in the context of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and advancing sustainable energy solutions. The project focuses on gaining a comprehensive understanding of regenerating supported nickel catalysts used in methane conversion. While previous studies have predominantly concentrated on making catalysts more stable, this project uniquely centers on catalyst regeneration. By filling this critical knowledge gap, we aim to extend the operational lifetime of methane catalysts, ultimately contributing to enhanced carbon management and sustainable reduction of greenhouse gas emissions.”

This research grant brings nearly $600,000 to the university. “This funding plays a vital role in supporting students and the research endeavors outlined in the project over the next five years. These objectives include gaining fundamental insights into catalyst regeneration, carbon gasification, and potential regeneration strategies applicable to other supported metal catalyst systems. The scientific and environmental implications are truly global—with the potential to address urgent challenges like energy sustainability and emissions reduction to better the environment. I am enthusiastic about the opportunities this award offers to contribute to a more sustainable future.”

When it comes to those considering majoring in or pursuing a career in MSE, Zhu’s advice is as follows: “MSE is not just a subject; it’s a constantly evolving universe of possibilities. The key is to keep your curiosity alive. Also, remember that not every experiment will yield the results you expect. That’s often when the true learning happens. Persistence and resilience are your best companions. Always ask questions and remain hungry for knowledge. In MSE, innovation thrives when we challenge established norms and seek inventive solutions to the difficulties we encounter.”

MSE department head Bryan Huey adds, “and it’s not just about catalysts and microscopes and improving our environment—other materials engineers are inventing the core the next generation of high temperatures materials for aerospace, semiconductors for AI processing, batteries for our electrified world, artificial muscles and tissue for public health, new plastics and glass and composites, and so much more. Professor Zhu really exemplifies how the field of materials engineering provides the opportunity to build a career around your passions to improve the world around you.”

Lastly, Zhu said, “remember that MSE is a dynamic and rewarding field with vast potential for innovation and impact. It’s not just about studying materials; it’s about shaping the future. By nurturing your curiosity, continuously expanding your knowledge, and always keeping the bigger picture in mind, you’ll embark on a journey that promises a fulfilling and meaningful career in MSE. So stay curious, keep learning, and embrace the exciting challenges that lie ahead!”

Published: October 9, 2023

Categories: awards, faculty, in-situ electron microscopy, IN-siTu/Operando Electron Microscopy (InToEM) center, news, research

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