The Department of Materials Science and NanoEngineering (MSNE) at Rice University announces Hanyu Zhu as the new William Marsh Rice Trustee Chair Assistant Professor. He will head the Emerging Quantum and Ultrafast Activity Laboratory (EQUAL), researching quantum materials with strongly coupled optical, mechanical and electrical characteristics.
“We’ve known for a long time that some classical electronic devices are reaching their limit,” he said. “People are hoping that quantum materials science can bring a revolution to computing technology.”
Zhu earned his Ph.D. in engineering physics/applied physics from the University of California at Berkeley in 2016 and has since served there as a postdoctoral researcher. His research focuses on discovering and engineering materials properties at the atomic level, using light.
“One of the most important tools in our toolbox is optical spectroscopy. This tool uses powerful light bullets that last less than a trillionth of a second to identify and analyze unusual quantum behavior in nanomaterials,” Zhu said. “Rice is a cradle of nanoscience, and a leading institution for developing novel nanomaterials across disciplines.”
At Rice, he plans to work on electron-phonon interaction, exploring how electrons interface with a vibrating atomic lattice, which influences their dynamics and transport properties. Understanding this coupling can potentially aid in the development of more robust and energy-efficient solid-state devices.
“Phonons are typically difficult to study because there are so many of them all mixed together,” Zhu said. “But now we are employing a recently developed precision optical method to activate selected phonon modes. This approach transcends the conventional methodology of passive observation.”
He became interested in materials science as an undergraduate researcher, working with carbon nanotubes at Tsinghua University in China. He said he is passionate about building an inspiring and accessible research environment for the next generation of inventors.
“I like novel things,” he said, “and in this field, you are always surprised by how seemingly common materials display new and exciting properties when you examine them from a different perspective. For many years, graphite was only good for pencils and molybdenum disulfide for lubricants, but they now show promise in the entire clean energy and microelectronics industry. That surprise is the most fun part of materials science.”
Zhu said he looks forward to teaching and believes undergraduates would greatly benefit from a broad exposure to emerging materials concepts.
“MSNE undergraduates have the opportunity to learn about in new ideas in quantum materials,” he said. “In my classes, I would like to introduce the components of quantum technologies and the key materials involved. It’s hard to predict, but if quantum communication, computing and sensing become big industries in the coming decades, materials scientists and engineers will be essential players.”
Outside of research, Zhu likes biking. “I enjoy building things; I build my own bikes. This hobby has an interesting aspect that overlaps with optical experimentation: fantastic performance comes with just a little tweak if you know where to look.”