Yu receives NSF Early CAREER award for solid-solid phase transition research

Editor’s note: This story was updated Feb. 23, 2023.

Liping Yu, assistant professor of physics and an associate member of the Frontier Institute for Research in Sensor Technologies (FIRST) at the University of Maine, has earned an Early CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation (NSF), the foundation’s most prestigious recognition of early-career faculty with potential to serve as academic role models in research and education. Yu will receive a five-year $528,300 grant to support his research in solid-solid phase transitions.

Most materials have several different stable crystalline phases, each with its own set of physical, chemical and mechanical properties. For instance, carbon can take the phase form of both hard, precious diamonds or flaky, black graphite used in pencils. 

Solid-solid transitions between different crystalline phases are ubiquitous and important phenomena. They can lead to a wide variety of technologically important applications, such as diamond and steel production, synthesis of ceramic materials, thermal energy harvesting and storage, rewritable optical data storage and nonvolatile electronic memories. 

Solid-solid phase transitions have been studied for nearly a century. Significant progress has been made in understanding the relative stability between different phases, which is the driving force for the phase transition. However, the kinetics, or motions, that dictate whether the transition can occur under given environmental conditions and which path the transition likely takes remain poorly understood.

Through his research, Yu and his team will develop a computationally efficient method to advance the fundamental understanding of the kinetics underlying solid-solid transitions at the atomic level. The method will use state-of-the-art machine learning, modern quantum mechanics calculations and reverse engineering to overcome the challenges of studying atomic-level transitions of this nature.

“This research has the potential to lay a framework for obtaining the ability to control phase transition processes and accelerate the design and discovery of new functional phase-change materials where kinetics is essential,” Yu says.

Yu’s team will also develop advanced courses in computational materials physics and modeling at the University of Maine, expand the partnership between the University of Maine and national laboratories for student research, and create a summer computational materials research fellowship program for undergraduates. They also aim to create a module about materials design for high school students in collaboration with the Maine Center for Research in STEM Education (RiSE Center) at the University of Maine.

“Through these educational and outreach activities, we aim to inspire and develop a diverse, globally competitive next-generation STEM workforce in computational materials science that will benefit the state of Maine as well as the nation,” Yu says.

Yu joined the University of Maine as an assistant professor of physics in September 2018 and currently leads a research group focused on materials theory, informatics, and design. The goal of his research is to make impactful contributions to the design and discovery of new or improved functional materials for sustainable energy, such as solar cells, batteries and capacitors, and for next-generation electronics such as transistors and sensors.

“We are thrilled by this recognition of professor Yu’s excellence” says MacKenzie Stetzer, associate professor and acting chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy. “This highly selective CAREER award is a defining moment of his faculty career. It will considerably strengthen both our undergraduate and graduate programs and help prepare future generations of materials physicists in Maine and beyond to tackle the critical questions and problems they will face.”

Yu’s award starts March 1, 2023. 

Contact: Sam Schipani, samantha.schipani@maine.edu