WelcomeMy name is Jian Zhu, currently a PhD candidate working in Prof. Nicholas Kotov’s lab in University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. My work focuses on nature inspired materials design and engineering for functional composites of carbon nanotube, graphene and other nanomaterials.

A critical challenge in nanocomposite research is to translate exceptional nanoscale properties to the macroscale, which relies on the dispersion of nanomaterials, selection of matrices and optimization of composite microstructures. Various load-bearing biological composites such as bones, nacre and wood exemplify the importance of order and hierarchy starting at the nanoscale to tangible macroscopic levels. Drawing from these inspirations, I aim to achieve the similar multifunctionality through appropriate material selection along with composite architectures to ensure the multi-parameter property optimizations for corresponding applications.   

Graphene and carbon nanotubes (CNTs) are selected for their mechanical, electrical and thermal properties.  Hierarchical composites made of them can have simultaneous optimization in electrical, thermal and mechanical properties for applications ranging from flexible transparent conductors and tunable thermal expansion composites to bulletproof clothes or windows. It is not trivial to design strategies to achieve the hierarchical architectures. Three complementary methods are under development in my studies to embrace the vast variety of polymer matrices: layer-by-layer assembly, vacuum-assisted assembly and template infiltration.

Similar principles and methods can be applied to other nanomaterials, as those nanomaterials can have additional properties for specific materials challenges.  Interesting to me are materials such as gold or silver nanomaterials with higher conductivity, semiconducting nanoparticles with more manageable bandgap tunability, and Kevlar, cellulose nanofibers , clay or alumina platelets with the excellent mechanical strength but lower production cost. The discovery and synthesis of high performance nanocomposites based on such nanomaterials can be a promising research frontier to advance areas such as flexible conductors, solar cells, sensors and cost-effective and mechanically strong materials.

An intriguing aspect in my daily research life is how science imitates and intersects with art. To me, the iterative process of science is like creating an art piece, which requires one’s perseverance, tenacity and cogency.  In addition, the morphology of various nanomaterials and the hierarchical composite structures are essentially art at much smaller length scales than the art forms to which we are accustomed. Pam Keaton pointed that “Science is the validation of rational explanations. Art illustrates our innate desire to clarify our existence. The sum of art and science is infinitely greater than inconceivable possibility of one without other.”, thus I strive to make science accessible to the general public in aesthetic means.