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Size matters – but so does shape – for this researcher

By all accounts, the nano world is a small one -- with researchers working at an atomic scale that is one millionth the size of the tip of your pen. But, for Jiye (James) Fang, it’s not just size, but shape that matters as he seeks to find materials that will better serve our technology-based society.

“Small size is not enough, shape is also a factor,” Fang says, because the shape of a material affects its properties, and therefore, any practical applications it might have. He and his colleagues are working on a number of projects related to nanoparticles and their crystallinity. “It’s very difficult to cast a single particle, so what we’re doing is trying to make monodisperse nanocrystals (both in size and in shape), that is, each nanoparticle is exactly the same to look at, and to explore their collective properties,” he says.

Studying these monodisperse nanopolyhedra (geometric tiny solids with flat faces and straight edges), Fang looks at how active the catalytic properties are on a single type of crystal face. The goal is to find materials that will improve their electrocatalytic performance that might possibly be used in the fuel cell industry. “One of the best materials to work with is platinum,” says Fang, “however there is a limited resource of platinum in the world, so even if we could develop it, there’s not sufficient platinum to be practical. Can we find some less-expensive materials to replace the platinum?”

Other projects Fang is working on may lead to novel structured materials and improvements in thermoelectric and optical performance. A new collaboration with the Department of Biomedical Engineering at Duke University seeks to find nanoparticles with tunable and enhanced fluorescent properties. “My collaborator has asked for NIR QDs (near-infrared quantum dots) – versatile semiconductors -- with which we can clearly distinguish the target cells from tissue background and easily position where they are,” he says. “We already have achieved some good results.”

Fang’s research is also interdisciplinary. “I prefer collaborations,” he says. “When we work with materials, we need extensive collaboration.” And, as the director of the Materials Science Program/Track, Fang works closely with engineers in the Watson School of Engineering as well as physicists, geologists and chemists – others who are working with nanomaterials that will one day provide energy independence and advances in medical and electronic devices that we can’t yet imagine.

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Last Updated: 12/1/09