“My research is in a category called quantum materials,” said Hanyu Zhu, Rice University assistant professor of materials science and nanoengineering (MSNE). “We explore materials’ electronic properties that must be understood more through quantum than classical physics. One of our ultimate research goals is to find materials that make computers work more and eat less, in terms of electricity.”
The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science describes the magic of quantum materials as resulting from electronic interactions that begin at the atomic and subatomic scale - where solid matter takes on more wavelike properties.
Zhu said his interest is in materials’ “quantum,” as opposed to “classical,” properties —such as coherent superposition and entanglement— that can potentially create powerful electronic devices, but these properties are also fragile in common materials.
“That fragility may be why most people don’t apply quantum materials in large scale today, but that may change as we continually see new functions emerging by modifying existing materials.”
Leveraging the advances in quantum research will require sustaining these new functions under more accessible conditions, such as less cooling or lower magnetic field for life-size applications. Zhu said his work intends to track the evolution of quantum wavefunctions of electrons and atoms at femto-second timescale in nanoscale objects, so as to understand and improve the coherence properties.
“We hope that once we understand how the properties evolve at the atomic level, what we learn from the smaller and less tangible scale can be expanded into a scale for more useful devices. When quantum technologies can be built in solid-state materials, packaged, and put to work outside lab setups, then our quantum material has commercial possibilities.”
Zhu’s quantum research grew from his foundation in materials engineering principles, and he enjoys teaching MSNE courses to undergraduate and graduate students at Rice. In addition to materials science basics, both courses emphasize the development of clear communication skills.
“The primary goal of my junior laboratory for undergraduate students is to give them first-hand experience in working as a materials engineer. In real industrial settings, it is equally important to generate data and to translate the data to value,” said Zhu.
“Typically, students imagine a lab course as one where people get dirty and sit at long tables doing tedious work. But I found that the Junior Lab gives students the best chance to holistically practice what they are learning. They can apply their knowledge and test in a realistic environment.
“Whether it succeeds or fails, the students have to document their process and present their findings to various audiences - including advisors, peers in the scientific community, and industry representatives interested in their projects.”
Over the semester, the students focus on platforms for material property prioritizing or material specification and log their experiments and outcomes according to engineering standards. Then Zhu has them translate their raw documentation into a variety of formats, including non-technical genres like executive summaries. He said learning to explain what their data means to that type of audience is good practice for communicating the potential value they bring to the company that hires them.
“That is actually how I met Tracy Volz,” he said. “Her ACTIVATE Engineering Communication training is an integral part of our courses. She’s helped a lot of engineering students develop their communication skills and improve their presentations. Our projects can get very technical, but Tracy brings all the experience of her professional training team into our classrooms and her workshops make my students better writers.”
The importance of learning to write about —or tell— their stories to non-engineering and engineering audiences in different ways becomes more apparent to the students as the course comes to a close. Zhu said in one setting, the students were studying a new material that might be welded into a vehicle.
“Car manufacturers already use a variety of metals —mostly steel, but different types of steel in different parts of the car. Material properties change at high temperatures: they melt, solidify, and cool down at various rates. The students had to practice welding first. Then they had to study the welded samples properties, test the mechanical strength, and measure the samples’ hardness. Following that, they had to take micrographs determine the phases and domains at various locations around the weld.
“Finally they used electron microscopes to see the nanostructures of the domains and tested the micro hardness using very small probes. Once the students formulated a theory to explain how the welding temperatures, hardness and the materials’ composition were connected, they had to make a recommendation to the virtual car manufacturer in our trial. Would this process be useful? Is the new material weldable? If the engineers cannot tell their conclusion, the impact of the work is not maximized.”
Zhu’s quantum research comes more into play with the course he teaches to Rice graduate students. He said in addition to conveying the materials physics and experimental tools to deal with delicate quantum objects, his course helps graduate students learn to organize and communicate their own research projects to peers in the community.
The emphasis on learning to communicate their research highs and lows is based on what Zhu calls his own “could-be-better experience.” He said graduate study is new, risky, and time-consuming with lots of trial and error, so it is important to cope with both success and failure by communicating them clearly.
“Developing good communication skills is very important, not only when presenting the best of ourselves, but also when simply organizing our research. It is tempting to devote most of our time to the work and not spend enough time reflecting on the work. I learned to use my lab notebook as a communication between the current me and the future me.” said Zhu.
In addition to recording the data itself, Zhu said communicating outcomes can mitigate some of the stress inherent in research. Even when something doesn’t work as planned, sharing the process and results with a supervisor or peers in the community is helpful, because those people frequently value the contribution.
“Often, we hate to review something that did not go smoothly or succeed the first time.” said Zhu. “There are always lucky people who succeed in one strike, but good failure analysis generally secures long-term growth. Don’t fall for the false impression that everything always goes well. The best engineer is the one who can learn from both successful and failed projects.”
Zhu said his goal in graduate school was to learn by doing. Rather than attempt one or two perfect projects over five years, he made many attempts with the intent of learning something from each project.
“I thought I might learn more than the people who only did ‘successful’ projects because they would have fewer case studies at the end of their program. If I was less concerned about my success rate, I’d have a larger sample of data from which to learn,” said Zhu.
The pandemic and its impact on knowledge workers have also given Zhu an unexpected opportunity to learn. What he has observed has made him a more passionate advocate for the discipline of materials sciences.
He said, “Some people feel the pandemic has changed our lifestyles for good, with online meetings and services for more and more people to work and enjoy life at home. But we’ve also discovered there is a real difference between actual activities and working remotely. In many cases, we need both.
“Although recent trends showed a lot of our students heading into software careers, the physical world still matters. In fact, it matters even more than in the past. In an increasingly digital world, we’re becoming dependent on networks and those networks are built on top of gigantic hardware and infrastructures. So we need really courageous people - materials people - to whom our real, physical lives matter.”
This story is part of a series of profiles for the ACTIVATE Engineering Communication program.