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Latest NSF CAREER Award Reflects Research Growth

By: Kathleen Tuck   Published 11:10 am / February 23, 2015

Assistant professor of materials science and engineering Claire Xiong holds a coin-cell battery.

Assistant professor of materials science and engineering Claire Xiong holds a coin-cell battery.

Sometimes weaknesses can mask hidden strengths. At least, that’s the premise of research by materials scientist Claire Xiong. Her quest to create a better battery using defect-driven oxide materials has earned her a coveted Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation.

Xiong’s five-year, $528,027 award is the third CAREER award granted to a Boise State faculty member this academic year, and the 12th since 1997. Eight of those awards have been in the College of Engineering.

“A National Science Foundation CAREER award is a clear indicator of the talent of our faculty members and the overall strength of our research and educational programs,” said Engineering Dean Amy Moll.

Xiong, shows a nanostructured titanium dioxide thin film to students in lab

Xiong, center, shows a nanostructured titanium dioxide thin film to undergraduate Jayson Mok (ECE) on the left, and graduate student Changjian Deng, right, in her lab.

The CAREER award is the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious program in support of junior faculty who effectively integrate outstanding research and education within the context of their organization’s mission. It is intended to give promising researchers an early career boost by providing stable research funding over an extended period of time.

The CAREER award is just one indication of the national attention the university’s research program is receiving. The university also has a number of active grants from other NSF programs and from the National Institutes of Health, the Department of Energy, NASA, the National Endowment for the Humanities and other federal granting agencies.

“This award acknowledges not only the university’s important contribution to advances in science and engineering, but also our commitment to both teaching and research to enhance student learning,” said Mark Rudin, vice president for research and economic development. “The talented young researchers we’ve been able to attract to our campus are the future of Boise State and our growing research profile.”

For Xiong, the grant will allow her to develop a battery that will last longer and provide more power — a definite need in a world powered by, well, power. Originally trained as an electrochemist, she is drilling down to the atomic scale to develop the most efficient material to create a long lasting and dependable power source.

Batteries work by channeling positively and negatively charged atoms through a circuit. The constant charging and discharging leads to stress, which causes fractures and wears out the battery. Xiong is looking for materials that won’t be easily stressed.

On the surface, defect-driven oxide materials sound like just the sort of substance you’d want to avoid. But here’s how it works. In most materials, the atoms sort themselves into orderly lattices of well-ordered rows and columns. In defect-driven materials, you’ll find a missing atom here and there – it’s either vacant or off to the side, outside the neat lattice framework. Preliminary results have shown that somehow this structure responds much better to stress and offers a flexible framework for changes to optimal structures and superior performance for advanced battery systems.

“We start from a disordered amorphous structure and put it through an electrochemical cycle with either lithium or sodium ions (two of the most common battery chemicals) and it self-organizes into an optimum structure with high capacity and stability,” Xiong said.

She first discovered the process while a postdoc at Argonne National Laboratory near Chicago, Illinois. “I found this to be an interesting phenomenon,” she said. “And there are still a lot of unknowns.”

Xiong currently has eight student researchers in her lab: four undergraduates, three graduate students and one high school student. In addition, educational modules will be developed through a partnership with local Boys and Girls Clubs to interest kids in science and engineering.

“This grant means a lot to me because I have an interest in the area of materials and energy storage and I really want to explore it. The Career Award enables me to do this,” Xiong said. “I expect that my work will make an impact in my field, as well as inspire the next generation of researchers to pursue materials science and engineering careers.”

Past Boise State recipients of the prestigious CAREER award include:

1997 — Susan Burkett (Electrical and Computer Engineering — now at University of Alabama)
2001 — John Lusth (Computer Science — now at University of Alabama)
2003 — Elisa Barney Smith (Electrical and Computer Engineering)
2005 — Alex Punnoose (Physics)
2007 — Megan Frary (Materials Science and Engineering)
2009 — Wan Kuang (Electrical and Computer Engineering)
2011 — Inanc Senocak (Mechanical and Biomedical Engineering)
2012 — Jeffrey Johnson (Geosciences)
2013 — Pushpa Raghani (Physics)
2014 — Alejandro Flores (Geosciences)
2014 — Vishal Saxena (Electrical and Computer Engineering)
2015 — Claire Xiong (Materials Science and Engineering)

In addition, Janet Callahan (Materials Science and Engineering) earned an NSF CAREER Award before coming to Boise State from the Georgia Institute of Technology.