University of Wisconsin–Madison

Focus on new faculty: Jiamian Hu, using computer models to improve materials for many applications

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For materials scientist Jiamian Hu, the culture of interdisciplinary research collaboration at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is a major selling point for the university.

“That’s actually one of the very important reasons that I wanted to come to Wisconsin,” says Hu, who will join the materials science and engineering faculty in fall 2017. “I found that the collaboration barrier here is very low. It’s a very interdisciplinary culture here within the college and across the entire university.”

That low barrier for collaboration is especially attractive for Hu because his research centers on computational modeling, and in that field: “Collaboration is basically everything to us,” Hu says.

That’s because a computational model needs to be validated by experiments. In return, modeling can provide guidance to experiments on how to achieve or optimize a desirable property or functionality.

An award-winning researcher of inorganic materials, Hu was hired through the college’s Grainger Institute for Engineering. He comes from Tsinghua University in China via a post-doctoral stint at Penn State.

Hu primarily studies the properties of inorganic materials using the computational modeling method known as the “phase-field” method. He models the evolutional microstructure of materials—structures that are larger than the atomic scale but small enough that the naked eye cannot discern them.

“We call it the mesoscale. It typically ranges from nanometers to microns,” says Hu. “Through computer modeling, we find how you can arrange a microstructure in such a way that a material will have the functionalities or properties you need. So basically, we are trying to make existing materials much better.”

Those materials include everything from metals to polymers, and from soft materials to ceramics.

Hu is especially excited about the prospect of collaborating with current MS&E faculty like Professor Dane Morgan and Professor Izabela Szlufarska, who also do computational modeling, but on different time and spatial scales than Hu’s microstructure-focused models.

“I’m excited to see if we can collaborate and do some multi-scale modeling of materials,” says Hu.

To date, most of Hu’s phase-field method research has modeled the magnetoelectric properties of materials that are a combination of magnets and ferroelectric materials. Hu says these materials have unique properties that open up new opportunities for electronics.

“Addressing these materials almost does not require any electric currents, which means the heat production is minimal,” Hu says. “That enables us to potentially produce many different types of energy-efficient devices that could eventually save a large amount of energy for our industry.”

Additionally, the materials offer a method for converting magnetic fields into electric fields, and vice versa, for all sorts of potential applications. These range from new and much less cumbersome medical imaging equipment to smaller, more powerful and more energy-efficient electronic devices.

Hu plans to continue pursuing his research into magnetoelectric materials, but he also plans to expand his computational modeling methods to other materials and applications while at UW-Madison.

“In the future I’m planning not to limit myself into a specific area because I’m treating my phase-field model as a tool,” Hu says. “The tool can describe a microstructure and its evolution dynamics in any material system.”

In addition to his research, Hu may teach thermodynamics and kinetics of materials. He says he’s excited to share his knowledge and experience on a wide variety of topics with students.

“Hopefully I can teach other courses eventually, as well,” he says. “Teaching is the best way to learn, and Wisconsin also has a lot of resources for teaching and designing courses. It’s very cool how many resources Wisconsin has for teaching, learning and research.”

Author: Will Cushman