Zhang’s integrated ultra-high vacuum growth and characterization system, which allows for his team to perform in situ research.

NSF Career Grant Series: LSU Professor Delves Into Complex Materials With Novel Equipment

Jiandi Zhang comes to LSU for Materials Science MHI, brings in situ research capacity

Jiandi Zhang has a unique toy in the basement of Nicholson Hall on LSU’s campus. It’s called an integrated ultra-high vacuum growth and characterization system, and it’s a key reason that he holds one of the National Science Foundation’s, or NSF’s, most illustrious funding opportunities: the CAREER Award.

“When working on the nanoscale, you’re dealing with materials that are highly sensitive to their environment and are often relatively new,” said Zhang. “Working in an in situ vacuum, which allows us to view things at the atomic scale as well grow, measure, move and run tests, all without breaking the vacuum seal, gives us a huge advantage.”

The biggest bonus, Zhang says, is the ability to run a comprehensive series of experiments on a newly discovered material without exposing the sample to air with possible contamination.

Cellular patterns Zhang and his team view from the in situ system.

“Generally, to really explore each individual characteristic of a material, you have to send the sample off to a lab that specializes in that particular area,” said Zhang. “But with our integrated system, we are able to keep everything in-house at LSU.  And, since you can see what’s happening at all times, it’s fairly simple to modify the sample’s properties, measure the new results and optimize new functionalities.”

This capability brings a new level of creativity to the research field, allowing scientists in Zhang’s group the flexibility to immediately experiment with even the newest of discoveries. In his lab, they are able to grow a material at atomic scale and image it also with atomic resolution, thus gaining insight into the emergent properties and functionalities in nanometer size.

The vacuum system can substantially heat and cool the samples and move them from one end of the system to another, where each sample can be measured and viewed under microscopes of varying intensity, resulting in intriguing cellular patterns that provide Zhang and his colleagues with more information about the material at hand.

“So many new generation applications come from the complex oxides that we work with,” said Zhang. “We often need to mix them together to get an idea of what they’re really capable of, which requires an enormous amount of control and technical capabilities.”

Zhang comes to LSU from Florida International University, drawn to Louisiana because of the Flagship University’s recent Materials Science Multidisciplinary Hiring Initiative, or MHI, which brought to campus National Academy of Sciences member Ward Plummer, along with several colleagues, graduate students and post-doctoral researchers in related fields.

The NSF CAREER grant, which Zhang received in 2004, has supported his work in two ways: it has funded his research, and it has allowed him to support students, a win-win situation for both the researcher and any student interested in materials physics and lucky enough to grab a spot in his lab. For Zhang, the educational outreach component of his grant is just as important as the research aspect.

“To really reach students in complex materials physics, you have to explicitly connect fundamental research and application for them,” he said. “You have to grab a student’s interest. You show them that this kind of work eventually will impact the size of computer monitors, of memory chips and will even make computers faster. If you show them the end result, that’s when it really clicks for them.”

Soon, he would like to develop programs for educational outreach to high school students interested in physics, as well as increase the number of in-state physics majors at LSU.

“The LSU Department of Physics and Astronomy is an extremely productive research unit. They have about one-third of all the active NSF CAREER grant recipients on this campus,” said Zhang. “We’d like for more students to be exposed to and pursue careers in this field, which has not only academic but applied career potential, as well.”

Ashley Berthelot | Writer | Office of Communications & University Relations
June 2009