Season 4 - Episode 441
A nanometer measures just 1/100,000 the width of a human hair, but the chemical reactions that take place at that level bear significant implications for scientists, engineers, medical practitioners and more. Dr. Zhenrong Zhang, associate professor of physics, is illuminating the nanoscale through the development of a powerful nanoscale microscope. In this Baylor Connections, she shares how the invention can lead to more accurate medical diagnoses, cleaner sources of energy and more.
Derek Smith:Hello and welcome to Baylor Connections, a conversation series with the people shaping our future. Each week, we go in depth with Baylor leaders, professors, and more, discussing important topics in higher education, research, and student life. I'm Derek Smith and today we are talking research, material science, and more with Dr. Zhenrong Zhang. Dr. Zhang serves as associate professor of physics at Baylor University, an expert in advanced materials that impact a number of industries. Dr. Zhang is developing a groundbreaking nanoscale microscope that provides insights into materials, chemical, thermal, and optical makeup at the smallest possible level. As a tool for scientists, for microscope has implications in health care, energy, environmental health, and much more. We'll dive into how that works with Dr. Zhang, who joined the Baylor faculty in 2010, a little over a decade, here at Baylor and Dr. Zhang. Thanks so much for joining us. It's great to have you on the program today.
Zhenrong Zhang:Thank you. Thank you for having me on.
Derek Smith:Well, we will... I know if people, if they listen, they can keep an eye out for you and our R1 Research Campaign. You're one of five Baylor professors featured in this year's campaign on social media, on billboards, in ads. So people can put a face to the name when they see you in the R1 campaign upcoming. So thanks for taking the time to do that and share your research in that format as well.
Zhenrong Zhang:That's a pleasure. That's really an honor to be able to be part of this.
Derek Smith:A lot of photos and videos that you are subjected, you gave part of your afternoon for us. That's fantastic. Thank you for that.
Zhenrong Zhang:That was fun.
Derek Smith:That's good. We're glad you enjoyed it today, your fellow professors as well. As we dive into this and give people a sense in part of why we want to highlight your research so much, let's define a few vocabulary words or concepts. Not all of us are at that intersection of physics, advanced materials, and chemicals and these things. So let's define a few of those concepts. When we talk about advanced materials, first off, what are those?
Zhenrong Zhang:So the advanced materials from the composition point of view, it sounds normal. It's metal, it's oxide. You see them fairly often. What's advanced about it is, you change their dimension and you change their size. You change to very small, let's say to nanometer scales. Then the magic part is, that their properties are changing. You can change them to a way that you can use it differently. So that's the advanced materials.
Derek Smith:So a lot of that's decided, what for efficiency or safety or things of that nature?
Zhenrong Zhang:Depends on how you want to use it for, so for example, if you want to use it for guiding the light. If you have a bulk of the material, you may not be able to do it, but if you change to the thin film and you can do it. Other examples would be for the catalyst. If you have a bulk of material and your efficiency is low, if you change to a small size, let's say the nanoscale, and then you have lots of active sites, that can interact with molecule, and then it becomes more efficient.
Derek Smith:So obviously material science, we're talking about advanced materials, material science, one of the five academic initiatives of Illuminate. So a very important area at Baylor and elsewhere, growing area as well. What do you find most interesting or important about studying advanced materials?
Zhenrong Zhang:From my research point of view, or from everybody's research point of view, what's magic about it is, you can tune the material into the way that you want the applications to be. So, what we said just now, you can change their size, you can change their shape, you can change their charge or concentration, and you can tune their composition. By doing all this, you can change their chemical property, you can change their optical property, you can change the way that how they react with molecules. So I'm in the catalysis world and you can change how they interact with molecules, how they bond the molecule, how they breaks molecule apart. I also work in the optic world, and you can change how they propagate light, how they guide the light, how they can find the light. That's how, why, it's interesting. So you take a little thing and the thing changed. That's like magic.
Derek Smith:That is, as we visit with Dr. Zhenrong Zhang here on Baylor Connections, you mentioned the word nanoscale. We're going to talk about that, we'll talk about the microscope that you are producing. What is the nanoscale for those of us who probably know you're seeing something very small, but don't know a lot about what that really means.
Zhenrong Zhang:So nanoscale, if you look at your hair. One strand of hairs, the diameter is about a 100 micrometer. So if you divided one micrometer by 1000 times, so then that will give you the nanometer. So that means that we are looking at very, very small things. In how small they are, they are in the molecular level. So if you look, if you think about the atom, that's less than one nanometer. Normally it's about three, four angstroms, which is a 0.1 nanometer. So if you think about a molecule and then for example, virus, virus that's about 10 to 100 nanometer and DNA, that's about two nanometer. So that gives you a pretty good idea that how small the nanometer is.
Derek Smith:As we talk about your research, being able to delve into something that small and see it at the nano, on the nanoscale, at the nanometer level, what types of things can that tell us now that we have tools to understand this, that maybe we couldn't before?
Zhenrong Zhang:So, I use catalysis as an example. When you try to convert, let's say, you try to convert water into hydrogen and as the alternative energy resource. You try to split the water and you developed the catalyst and it did the reaction, but then it doesn't really have the efficiency that you're looking for. You don't know why, so normally when you do the research, you just change all different parameters and you try to take things and then you run experiment and see how it goes. But then you do not really know what's exactly happening on the catalytic material surface. So you're having lots of gas and you measure the whole thing, but if you go to the nanoscale and you just imagine that you have your zoom lens in, you dive into the interface, and you see how the water molecule interact with your surface and why it reacted or why it didn't reacted, where it wants to react, where it likes to bound. Then you will have a new, completely new perspective. So you can take the material, you can change the material, when you synthesize material, and then you just completely change your thoughts. And so that's, I'm thinking as when you know there's a problem, but you, if you don't know exactly where is the problem, what is the problem then you cannot solve the problem. So this gives you a way to really be able to see where the problem is at the molecular level.
Derek Smith:That saves a lot of time and energy that you can focus on expanding, once you know what the problem is, or enhancing what it is you're trying to do.
Zhenrong Zhang:That's right, also there's another perspective as the human being. I think we are always curious about the smaller size. What's really happening, and if we can really break it down. It's just from the curiosity point of view, we really want to know why, want to know, what's going on in our wonderful world.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Zhenrong Zhang. Dr. Zhang, I'm curious to hear how you would describe what you do, in the sense that I know that your work can cover a lot of different areas. You have impacts on health care, on energy, on the environment, batteries, acid rain, the implications for what you do are very, very vast. So, I'm curious if someone from another department, let's just say someone from a discipline completely outside of physics, just met you in line at the faculty center and said, "Oh, what is it that you do? Or what's your research area?". How would you describe that in the time it took to talk to them and then get your food in line there?
Zhenrong Zhang:Well, so I would say that I study how the molecules interact with material and try to improve the property of the material. That's one version and it depends. Sometimes, I like the microscopes that we are working on. And then, sometimes I say that I develop a type of microscope, it can see the individual molecules and it can tell the composition of the molecules. So it depends on who's asking, whether they have the size background or not.
Derek Smith:You got some different strands of your research that are all related, but different aspects of it, for sure. Well, let's talk about the microscope. Dr. Zhang, you're developing a microscope that, as you said, allows you to see things at the nanoscale. To just give us a background on that started off with how did that come about? How did you go down this path towards developing something like this?
Zhenrong Zhang:So, my background is in the surface sciences, surface chemical physics, and I have been studying the photo reactions or surface reactions on catalytic materials for a long time at the atomic level. But the problem is we can see the molecules, but we cannot tell the chemical composition of the molecules. That has been a struggle and people are developing techniques and has been wonderful. There is a great advance in that area. It turns out that the technique is really complicated to use. So we try to make this technique that is more accessible to, not just us, but to lots of scientists and researchers.
Derek Smith:Yeah. So you're really creating a tool that can impact not just your own discipline, but many disciplines. We'll want to dive into that and how it can be used in a number of different ways, but as you described, if you can see something at the nanoscale, you can recognize potential problems or opportunities at a level sooner than you would have otherwise. How are you able to delve into that? I don't know if there's proprietary secrets, cause I know there's things that are being developed here, but to the extent that you can, what are some of the aspects of this that have allowed you to delve further in and to highlight further in than other people have been able to?
Zhenrong Zhang:So, fortunately we already have the patent.
Derek Smith:That's good.
Zhenrong Zhang:So what we did differently is we combined the optical lens, essentially using the advanced material. It's a thin film. So we essentially replaced the optical lens by using thin film and then we put on the optical fiber. So then everything comes with the fiber. So fiber does everything. The light comes in, shine light on the molecule and then the photon and the molecule interact and then the photon energy change, we collect the photon back through the optical fiber. So the imaging at the nanoscale, both in the morphology and also chemical composition point of view, they are all combined through this optical fiber.
Derek Smith:When you talk about an optical fiber, how can we picture that or what that is or what its role is doing in that, a little more?
Zhenrong Zhang:So if you imagine optical fiber, you know that it can guide the light through from your house to somewhere. So you can have optical signals and you can have the propagating electromagnetic wave. What we do here is, we change the shape of the optical fiber and then we have this advanced material we call it the plasmonic material and it has coding. So if you want to see the nanometer scale, you have to focus your light to the nanometer scale. It's not a easy task because the light is tricky. Once you focus, it's very small, they tend to leak out. So the magic here is we use a material, the plasmonic material. We can allow the light to propagate. So it's traveling along the surface of the plasmonic material and then, it won't leak out, it just keep on going. And then it becomes a tiny, small nanoscale spot, light spot. And so that's the beginning of the light. That is the tool that to probe, how the molecule interact with the light, the photon, and then change the energy. And then you can tell why the molecule is that molecule, because it vibrates, they vibrate differently, if you have a different molecule.
Derek Smith:So vibration being one part of this, what, what are some things you're looking for to understand the composition of what you're seeing and uncover those clues that can help solve problems?
Zhenrong Zhang:So I use two examples. So one example, that's the catalysis. So if you have a molecule bound to the surface, the vibration would change just the like, if you being held by someone else, when you vibrate and then the vibration would be different. So then this will tell us that how the molecule bond with the surface and why it bond that way. And then if you want to change the bonding, and you can change the material. So then essentially for all the chemical reactions, that's the forming, the bonding and breaks the bonding and to, to change to the chemicals that in all the molecules that you would like. So for example, if you want to remove the CO, we all know it's toxic and you want the CO to Interact with oxygen, it won't work by itself. You need a catalyst to, to combine these to molecules and become CO2. And so you need to bond the CO2 to the surface and you want it to bond in a certain way. So CO2 can find its partner, O2, oxygen. And so that's how you can tell the chemical composition. And so that's one example from the catalyst point of view. The other example, that's what I'm very interested in is, in the biomedical field. I'm not expert in that area at all, but we have colleagues at Baylor and we talked to with our colleagues at Baylor, Eric Burrows, and Dr. Eric Burrows, she's very interested in the technique here. So essentially she develops these nano drugs. So then delivered to the cell. Cancer cell, let's say, and she wants to know how the molecules interact to with the cell and how the nano drug did some magic, how they interact? And it would be helpful to know exactly how it interact. And as it's nano drug, so you can imagine these are the molecules, and when they interact, they will change their vibration, and then they will become different.
Derek Smith:Visiting with Dr. Zhenrong Zhang, associate professor of physics at Baylor. So the medical field being, being one example, I know that's a big area. So you just said, you're working in right now. You also have aspects of this that can impact the environment, energy. Could you give us a couple examples in those areas as well? Cause I think when you're talking about things like health, the environment and energy, you're talking about some of the most important areas to, to all of us.
Zhenrong Zhang:So catalysis has lots of applications in the different areas, just the like what you said in the energy and environmental, and the one type of a material that we work with, that's the two dimensional molybdenum disulfide. And it is, so normally if you want to do the, let's say, the hydrogen. If you want to create the hydrogen, there are different ways that you can create, and the clean one would be that you split water and that's a electrochemistry process. And people normally use a platinum. As you can imagine, platinum is really expensive. So people want to use a different material to be able to do that. So molybdenum disulfide is one of the catalysts and can be used for hydrogen evolution reaction. So you can create the hydrogen. It's really fine. You'll put the molecule, you put the catalyst there and then you put in the electromagnetic, chemical cell and you can see the bubbling of the hydrogen coming out and you want to improve the catalytic property and you want it to be comparable to platinum. So you don't have to use the expensive platinum there. So, that's one example of how it contribute to the energy applications. And another example would be to remove the pollutant. So one of the material that we work with is the titanium dioxide and titanium dioxide is a non-toxic material. And you actually have it in the paint in your house. Then also you have those in your sunscreen. So it's, non-toxic at all. And it can remove the air pollutant. For example, we all know that the construction materials that they have, they emit, from aldehyde, acetone and they give problem to your lung. You can have a breath problem. And if you put this in titanium dioxide as a catalyst, and then you can convert formaldehyde to, CO2 and water. And so essentially you remove this toxic pollutants.
Derek Smith:Wow. So that helps people, that helps plants, that helps the ecosystem around, that's everything.
Derek Smith:That's great. Visiting with Dr. Zhenrong Zhang. And, as we're sitting here talking, as you're describing this, maybe people can hear it in your voice, but you're, you're smiling. As you describe some of these things you can do as you're describing being in the lab, what is it that most excites you and an invigorates you, when you go into work and get to work with students and work on these types of projects that, that most of us speaks to you, at this point in your career.
Zhenrong Zhang:So you, as I said you, you're always curious, and also you always want to do something that, that's live up to your full potential. And I feel like I'm really blessed that I gave the opportunity and then I can work with the, the wonderful students and the bright minds. And we work together on something that hopefully someday can make impact to the world. So that's the reason I motivate me every day and to work on things that we all want to work on.
Zhenrong Zhang:Well, I would say, I was drawn by the Christian mission of Baylor University. At that time I was I say, I was a young Christian. I was baptized maybe two or three years, and I really want to be in a environment that nurtures my Christian faith, and I can practice my Christian faith and I can work with the students and live a life that we are supposed to live as a Christian. And I always feel like there is a so much that I need to do and I didn't get to do, or I couldn't do it. So it is the Christian aspect of Baylor University.
Derek Smith:What does it mean to you as Baylor is working to become an R1 Research University and is on track to do so by, 2024, that idea of being a Christian Research University, a Christian University, that's producing top tier scientific research and social science research and all of these things.
Zhenrong Zhang:So for me, I think as a scientist that, God blessed me with the, I would say the ability to be able to explore the wonderful world and gave me the ability to be able to work with the students. And I would like to live to my full potential to be able to do so that, I feel like that's why God land me here and want me to work on the research that I do. And there are, when I first became or know the Christian, I had the impression that science and the faith cannot be together and they were bought together before I was a Christian. So that's now I think they are all together. And I just think that's what we are calling to do, to be able to explore this wonderful world and be able to use the resources that God blessed us with and to improve our life and to help the other people, if we can.
Derek Smith:Absolutely. Yes. Serving our neighbors through the research that you do. Absolutely well, that's exciting. Well, you're certainly doing a lot of great things with that, and we can see your passion for this as we visit. And I really appreciate you taking the time to share, thanks for delving into a topic that for a lot of us can be pretty remote and helping us, to kind of see it through your eyes and, like the microscope helping to see it a little bit better. So thank you for that.
Zhenrong Zhang:Thank you. Thank you for having me,
Derek Smith:Dr. Zhenrong Zhang, associate professor of physics at Baylor, our guest today here on Baylor Connections. I'm Derek Smith. A reminder, you can hear this and other programs online at baylor.edu/connections, and you can subscribe to the program on iTunes. Thanks for joining us here on Baylor Connections.