Tech professors awarded $1 million federal grant for research on clean energy technologies

Tech’s husband and wife duo of Jiahong Zhu (left) and Ying Zhang (right) pictured in front of the VersaMelt gas atomizer used as part of their clean energy research. It is the only equipment of its kind in the state of Tennessee.
Tech’s husband and wife duo of Jiahong Zhu (left) and Ying Zhang (right) pictured in front of the VersaMelt gas atomizer used as part of their clean energy research. It is the only equipment of its kind in the state of Tennessee. 

Two professors at Tennessee Tech University are the latest recipients of a major grant from the U.S. Department of Energy for their research on clean energy solutions.

Jiahong Zhu, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering, and Ying Zhang, Ph.D., professor of mechanical engineering and director for the Center for Manufacturing Research, were awarded $1 million from the Department of Energy’s Office of Fossil Energy and Carbon Management for their work repurposing coal and coal waste to develop low-cost advanced conductors for clean energy technologies.

Zhu and Zhang’s research was one of only six projects nationwide selected for funding under the Department of Energy initiative, and the only in Tennessee.

The project, titled “Spray Deposition of Coal-Derived Graphene-Copper Nanocomposites for Advanced Conductors” aims to create better conductors for clean energy technologies that are both affordable and efficient. 

Working with partners at Tennessee State University, Copperweld, a middle Tennessee-based manufacturer of copper bimetals, and Eastern Plating, an east Tennessee electroplating company, Zhu and Zhang seek to develop new material made from coal-derived graphene and copper that will have better properties than the copper wires and cables currently used in clean energy applications. The new material will be made using a spray deposition process, which is a versatile and cost-effective way to create materials.

“We’re trying to minimize the use of coal for power generation,” said Zhu, principal investigator for the project. “Instead, we want to incorporate coal-derived carbon, such as graphene, into new materials that offer better performance for emerging applications. Converting coal into high-value products could also create job opportunities, which is especially significant for those in distressed communities that have been impacted by the recent energy transition.” 

Zhu continued, “Our idea is to make conductors that go beyond the conventional copper material by incorporating the graphene derived from coal. Graphene is much more conductive than copper, so you can really make improvements over the copper conductors that are in use today. This could improve the efficiency of everything from electric vehicles and airplanes to the cable industry. With high conductivity, you can use less material.”

As Zhu and Zhang explain, coal is not considered an optimal energy source for the environment but, while it remains in use, their goal is to take coal-derivatives and apply them towards their most environmentally clean and useful purpose.  

Zhu and Zhang will use the project to provide opportunities for students of color, female, and veteran students – communities that are historically underrepresented in STEM – to participate in their clean energy research. The research also has the potential to help spur further economic development in rural areas of the state. 

“Copper wire and cable is a very big business. We have Tennessee companies doing work in this space who are in economically distressed counties. If you can make an impact there, it will have a significant impact on the Tennessee economy,” adds Zhu.

To conduct their research, Zhu and Zhang will use a laboratory-scale gas atomizer that was purchased through a grant from the Office of Naval Research. Tennessee Tech was the first university in the country to procure this sophisticated equipmentDrs. Jiahong Zhu and Ying Zhang and remains the only university in the state with this capability.

Zhu and Zhang’s partnership is not limited to their groundbreaking clean energy research – the two are also a married couple. The longtime Tech faculty members both came to the university in 2000.

This is Zhu and Zhang’s second major research collaboration. The duo also received a Department of Energy grant during the previous administration for their research on high-temperature coatings to protect steam turbine blades in coal-fired power plants. 

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