Name: Ting Xu
Affiliation: University of California, Berkeley
Last fall, Ting Xu, a professor of materials science at the University of California at Berkeley, was suffering from headaches so severe that doctors worried she might have a brain tumor. But one neurologist suggested a simpler cause. How about cutting back on the 16-hour days in the lab, sleeping, and maybe even eating at normal times?
Xu has since eased her work schedule, but she’s no less productive. Earlier this year she co-authored a paper describing a new technique for coaxing tiny polymer strands to self-assemble into 10 trillion cylinders with precise patterns. The method could lead to discs the size of a quarter that store 175 DVDs’—7 terabits—worth of data. Then she tweaked the technique so it could be used to build a range of nanoparticle-based devices—super-efficient photovoltaic cells and energy storage systems, and higher-resolution flexible displays. Xu is smart, diligent and knowledgeable, says polymer physicist Thomas Russell of the University of Massachusetts, but more important,“she has imagination.”
And a youthful one at that. She loves the Transformers. She’s a devotee of Tom and Jerry—watching the warring cat-and-mouse duo helps her think. Like her cartoon heroes, Xu, a native of China, has always been restless. She played volleyball and ran track growing up, but neither wore her out. Her father would offer to boost her allowance if she could sit for more than 15 minutes at a time. He never had to pay, and that energy continues to drive her today.
After reporting on the self-assembly method, which she created with Russell, Xu immediately saw greater potential. The strands, she realized, could serve as minuscule cranes to arrange even smaller building materials and manufacture things like ultrasmall electronic devices and paper-thin, printable solar cells. In her most recent work, Xu combined the self-assembling polymers with nanoscopic particles. By forcing these particles to assume the underlying order of the polymers, she managed to get trillions of them to line up exactly as she wanted.
Xu hopes the work will give solar cells a competitive advantage over fossil fuels, for one thing, but she won’t be resting in the meantime. She’s constantly hunting for new ideas and designing experiments with the hope of surprising herself, not just confirming existing theories. “It’s important to think about science in a perpendicular way, not a parallel way,” she says. “Otherwise you end up painting other people’s houses.” —Gregory Monesingle page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.