A Nano-view For Advanced Solutions

September 24, 2021
Zhenrong Zhang, Ph.D., associate professor of physics at Baylor University, is unlocking enormous potential within one of the world’s smallest measurements.

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. The ability to see the reactions on a scale that small, however, has eluded scientists—but Zhang’s groundbreaking research and invention are changing that.

“We’re creating the tools to make research easier, and to help scientists obtain more information from their research,” Zhang says. “We’ve developed a microscope to look directly at the molecule. If a scientist knows there’s a problem, but doesn’t know exactly where the problem occurs, they can’t solve the problem.

“This microscope gives you a way to see where the problem is at the molecular level.”


The significance of such a microscope can be better understood through the lens of advanced materials—and outcomes that include more precise medical diagnostic tools, healthier energy sources and environmentally sound products for everyday use. Zhang, a chemical physicist, was drawn to apply her expertise and research towards advanced materials because of their physical interactions and immeasurable potential to improve human life are “like magic.”

Materials science, and the advanced materials born from its study, is revolutionizing fields as wide-ranging as biomedicine and air travel. Advanced materials begin as normal elements, Zhang explains, like metal or oxide. But, through experimentation and synthesis which alter their size, shape and composition, scientists can change the ways that they behave, guide the ways they interact with their environment and expand the types of problems they can solve.

“When you change the dimension or size of a molecule, magic happens,” Zhang says. “For a researcher, it’s amazing to tune materials into the way you want their applications to be—changing their size, their shape, their charge, concentration or composition,” Zhang says. “By doing this, you change their chemical property and how they react with molecules, how they bond, how they break molecules apart. That’s what I study, and then try to improve the property of the material.”

This “tuning” feeds a chain of research that eventually leads to further breakthroughs: biosensors that more precisely diagnose disease, optical materials that guide light more effectively, and tools to isolate and remove pollutants from energy sources. Downstream from such innovations are people: individuals diagnosed more accurately and quickly who receive better treatment for diseases such as cancer, or environments kept free of contaminants that lead to acid rain and other negative consequences.

The challenge comes in synthesizing the precise molecular arrangements that yield desired results and further, understanding how and why the meaningful reactions take place. Because those reactions take place at the molecular level, scientists cannot see the chemical composition of those molecules, and are forced to apply deeply complicated techniques that consume hours of time and energy.

As Zhang illuminates the nanoscale, she’s unlocking new options for scientists to advance beyond that.


“As a scientist, you’re always curious and you want to do something that can hopefully impact the world,” Zhang says. “That motivates me every day. And it’s exciting to create a technology that allows you to extract more information from chemical samples than ever before and that is accessible for all researchers to use.”

To unlock the nanoscale, Zhang developed an optical fiber approach to microscope development. A series of of steps enable her and her team to pinpoint one nanometer of light, something never before done: an altered optical fiber, coated with advanced materials which enable the light to travel along the surface of the optical fiber without leaking.

The end result is a focused light point that allows the user to see the molecule at the nanoscale level. With a desired molecule ensconced visually and displayed for view, scientists can manipulate the energy, light and other factors to see how the molecule interacts at the base level. Armed with precise answers as to how or why the molecules that build advanced materials behave the way they do, scientists can dedicate research efforts to furthering that understanding and building better materials, rather than spending vast amounts of time trying to build that understanding in the first place.

“That’s why I say this is not just for one application, but for many different types of applications,” Zhang says. “Researchers of all types and levels can utilize this.”

External funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Baylor’s Lab to Market Collaborative support both the development and eventual commercialization of a product with the capacity to make a massive difference—not just for scientists, but for anyone who benefits from scientific breakthroughs.


After joining the Baylor faculty in 2010, Zhang has watched the University’s research profile advance along with her own. As she developed the microscope and other research projects, she was supported by a growing Christian research university, which focused resources and infrastructure towards systemic research growth. As the University accelerates towards R1 research recognition, Zhang sees further potential for her and her colleagues to make a lasting difference.

“As a scientist and a Christian, I believe that God blessed me with the ability to explore this wonderful world, and gave me the ability to work with students who can do the same—to serve and live to our full potential. That’s what we are called to do, and that’s what Baylor is pursuing. We focus on research and exploration, utilizing all of the resources that God has given us, to investigate and to create in ways that improve the lives of those around us.”
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