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Award Lightening Talks—2020 MRS Fall Meeting

Co-chair of the MRS Awards Committee Suveen Mathaudhu of the University of California-Riverside moderated the lively Lightening Talks session with researchers named for the MRS awards this Fall. He acknowledged that MRS awards are given to materials researchers at all points of their careers, and encouraged nominations

The presentations

Yi Cui of Stanford University and Linda Nazar of the University of Waterloo received the MRS Medal “for outstanding contributions to advanced materials design, synthesis and characterization for energy storage, particularly Li battery technologies.” Cui, who introduced the field of nanomaterials design for battery research, opened his talk about the reinvention of batteries, then briefly covered his broad range of research interests. To contribute to energy sustainability, Cui not only improves devices like Li-ion batteries, but considers how to save energy through clothing, for example, his nanoporous polyethylene cooling textile that allows radiation from the human body to go out. “If we can control this radiation that accounts for roughly about 50% of the heat dissipation, then we could enable much better cooling during summer time and heating during winter time,” he said.

Nazar’s work takes us “beyond Lithium” as she considers next-generation batteries. “It is anticipated that the classic ‘trio’ will be replaced with advanced materials such as lithium for the anode, potentially sulfur for the cathode which means developing new electrolytes optimized for sulfur or even solid-state electrolytes to enable all solid-state batteries with metal oxide cathodes,” Nazar said. Stabilizing the Li metal anode still remains a problem which Nazar’s group addressed with the help of growing protective Li-alloy membranes. Naza also highlighted other work by her group to improve ionic conductivity in solid electrolytes.

Jean-Luc Bredas of The University of Arizona, who received the MRS Materials Theory Award—endowed by Dr. Gwo-Ching Wang and Dr. Toh-Ming Lu—gave a decade-by-decade description of the advances made in the fields of organic electronics and photonics. “The reason for the major interest in electrically conducting or semiconducting polymers, oligomers, or molecular materials is the fact that these offer the possibility of combining in a single material—on the one hand—the electrical properties of semiconductors and metals and—on the other hand—the mechanical properties of plastics, which all open the way to flexible electronics,” Bredas said. In his group’s latest work, describing the dynamics at organic-inorganic interfaces has led to the understanding of the charge-separation process in organic solar cells and the emission process in organic light-emitting diodes.

Igor Aharonovich of the University of Technology-Sydney, who received the Kavli Foundation Early Career Lectureship in Materials, addressed the opportunities in the field of quantum technologies with two-dimensional (2D) materials. He specifically described the research on the hybrid approach for on-chip devices. “The vision,” Aharonovich said, “is we really want to go to a fully integrated 2D [quantum] system on a single chip.”

The MRS Postdoctoral Awards went to Edoardo Baldini of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Chengwei Wang of the University of Maryland. MRS acknowledges the Jiang Family Foundation and MTI Corporation for their generous contribution to support this award. Baldini talked about his work in developing advanced ultra-fast laser methods to perform spectroscopy of complex quantum materials and control their properties and create novel functionalities. Wang gave a number of examples of his work using the ultrafast high-temperature sintering (UHS) technique that he co-invented, which reduces sintering times from hours to ~10 s.

Aditya Sadhanala of the Centre for Nano Science and Engineering at the Indian Institute of Science received the MRS Nelson “Buck” Robinson Science and Technology Award for Renewable Energy, endowed by Sophie Robinson in memory of her father. Sadhanala’s development of the photothermal deflection spectroscopy (PDS) technique ushers research into the new age of thin-film semiconductor-based optoelectronics, such as low-cost, efficient solar cells that replace today’s silicon technology.          

The discussion

Each of the speakers gave a rapid 8-minute talk on their research, which was then followed by an enlightening discussion. When asked about the most exciting aspect of their work, the researchers pointed to how their work affects people in society or how it helps other researchers. Wang says his work enables other researchers to fabricate their materials quickly so they can move on to their experiments. Nazar likes how her research translates into practical batteries. Part of Sadhanala’s talk covered the educational outreach he does. “For me,” he said, “the most exciting thing is to see the young students ask so many questions.” When he travels to remote areas, he is inspired how students generate scientific ideas to solve local problems. For Cui, the exciting thing about mission-oriented research is solving world problems such as climate change. “Energy storage is dearest to my heart,” he said, “because that’s really the most important missing link right now.”

In terms of the pandemic and collapse of the job market that causes some anxiety to early-career researchers, the panelists were asked what “tips” they have as mentors. Suggestions included to take the time to read about a lot of research, to develop their own ideas and expand their horizon, to keep open to opportunities, to plan their experiments very carefully in order to make the most use of their constrained time in the laboratory, and to improve their skills in modeling which also leads to better methods for experiments done remotely. Because the work of Bredas’s group is computational, their research has not been interrupted. However, he said, staying connected is critical. “Especially in the beginning, we had twice a week group meetings,” said Bredas, “making sure that everyone is okay and the mental aspects with everyone being isolated.”      

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