Pitt Engineering Secures NSF Funding

  • By Jenny Stein
  • 29 September 2020

Three projects led by PQI professors in the University of Pittsburgh’s Swanson School of Engineering, James McKone, Feng Xiong, and Nathan Youngblood, recently received funding from the National Science Foundation. Additionally, Ken Jordan in the Pitt Department of Chemistry is Co-PI on an NSF-funded project led by Lei Li to use computational methods to understand the mechanisms of wetting transparency of graphene on liquid substrates and demonstrate the real-time control of surface wettability

One project will develop technology to help enable the widespread adoption of renewable energy, like solar and wind power. James McKone, assistant professor of chemical and petroleum engineering, is collaborating with researchers at the University of Rochester and the University at Buffalo to develop a new generation of high-performance materials for liquid-phase energy storage systems like redox flow batteries, one of McKone’s areas of expertise. The project, “Collaborative Research: Designing Soluble Inorganic Nanomaterials for Flowable Energy Storage,” received $598,000 from the National Science Foundation, with $275,398 designated for Pitt.

McKone’s team will investigate the molecular properties of soluble, earth-abundant nanomaterials for use in liquid-phase battery systems. These batteries are designed to store massive amounts of electricity from renewable energy sources and provide steady power to the grid.

“Unlike the batteries we normally think of in phones and laptop computers, this technology uses liquid components that are low-cost, safe and long-lasting,” said McKone. “With continued development, this will make it possible to store all of the new wind and solar power that is coming available on the electric grid without adding a significant additional cost.” 

In addition, Nathan Youngblood and Feng Xiong, assistant professors of electrical and computer engineering, have received $380,000 from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to study phase-change materials and overcome the challenges inherent in the technology.

Phase-change materials consist of a layer of atoms that can be individually manipulated. Heating these materials causes them to switch between two or more stable states, where the atoms are either randomly positioned, like in glass, or ordered, like in a crystal. Importantly, the change is reversible, which allows it to be rewritten over and over, an aspect crucial to analog computing and deep learning applications.

Optical memory, like a DVD, uses lasers to write and read information in a phase-change material. This project would combine optical readouts with electrical controls, using electrical currents to generate heat and encode information. 

“Other attempts to create an electrically-controlled optical memory device have resulted in short life-cycles, failing after 1,000 cycles. Blending the two technologies is a challenge, but it’s necessary for real-world applications,” explained Youngblood, who is the principal investigator on the project. “This project will help us understand how to overcome those challenges.” 

The team will investigate the role of heat and mechanical expansion in the layers that make up these devices, and they will use high-resolution imaging to study the role of migration of atoms and the effect that has on reversibility of the materials. The pair also received a $501,953 NSF award earlier this year for their work investigating how light affects two-dimensional phase-change materials for use in improved storage devices.

“One of the bigger issues we’re addressing is how many times they can reverse and repeat the memory storage process,” said Xiong. “Computing memory needs to do many cycles, and if we’re using electrical phase change memory, you can achieve an endurance performance of about 108 cycles - or a hundred million - times. But with current technologies combining electrical control and optical readouts, instead of one hundred million, it’s reduced to just a few thousand cycles before it starts to degrade.”

Though these materials’ primary use is for storage, Youngblood and Xiong say their work can potentially also be used for optical devices with a coating that can be controlled, like a lens or screen that can perform calculations on the optical information passing through it.

“This technology would be useful not only for storage but also for tenable optical components, like electrical interfaces,” said Youngblood. “If we are able to create memory cells that we can control electrically, we can apply the same technology to optical devices, like mirrors or lenses, with a coating that users can control.”

The project, titled “High Endurance Phase-Change Devices for Electrically Reconfigurable Optical Systems,” began in August 2020 and is expected to last three years. 

Written by Maggie Pavlick. Original articles can be found here and here.