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TJU Professor Yang Quanhong’s Poetic Life with “Carbon”

Yang Quanhong, Professor of the School of Chemical Engineering and Technology, Tianjin University, is a winner of the National Science Fund for Distinguished Young Scholars. His research direction is carbon nanomaterials and nanoenergy materials (lithium battery and supercapacitor electrode materials). In the past ten years, he has focused on the design of energy storage devices featuring high volume, energy, and density, and achieved a series of key technological breakthroughs in the application of compact graphene energy storage.

On January 26, “Sulphur-doping template method” proposed by Yang’s research team was published on Nature Communications. The method aims to realize the tailoring of graphene to active particle encapsulation by designing negative materials of the lithium ion battery with high volume, energy, and density, which makes it possible for the lithium ion battery to become “smaller”.

Making scientific research, writing poems, and delivering the beauty of carbon are three key components of Yang’s life.

Falling in love with carbon

Several years ago, Yang wrote an impromptu poem for the antique carved “ene ring” on the window lattice of “Ying Qiu Courtyard” designed by Lin Huiyin. In his mind, although Lin Huiyin did not recognize this chemical structure when designing the courtyard 80 years ago, the beauty of architecture and chemical structure is interconnected. It is around us, but we can’t recognize it just because we don’t have penetrating insights.

Such experiences and perceptions have acted as blossoming waves in Yang’s studies of carbon for more than 20 years, which enables him to maintain his childlike curiosity and endless enthusiasm.

Born in 1972, Yang Quanhong graduated as a polymer chemical engineering major from the Department of Applied Chemistry, Tianjin University in 1994. Then he entered the chemical technology specialty and pursued his PhD in engineering in the Institute of Coal Chemistry, Chinese Academy of Sciences. It was during that period that he began to contact with "carbon" and became obsessed with it.

Yang holds the view that though carbon seems too profound to be understood, it can be understood easily. Yang once compared his two representative achievements, graphene low-temperature preparation technology and graphene hydrogel compact deflation technique, to a vivid changing process from corn to popcorn and then to compressed biscuits. He also compared the design process of a conduction model applying graphene conductive agents to a transformation from dough drop soup to noodle slice soup. Yang’s main achievements in the field of graphene including the second prize of the National Invention Awards are derived from those inspirations.

From his point of view, scientific research sometimes is very simple just like numerous discoveries in the history of science are simple in essence. What scientists need to do is to “pierce the window paper”. Meanwhile, scientific research is a magical thing. The mission of scientists is to extract real academic issues from simple routines.

Tracing the root of carbon

In Yang's view, graphene is a good thing, and its application in conductive agents is significant for the improvement of battery performance. In the course of research, scientists should bear in mind that the fundamental of application is the construction of a network with extreme softness, thinness, and denseness, and that the flexible single (extremely thin) layer is the precondition for dispersion in active substances. He once wrote a poem on the application of graphene and used the poem to remind himself and his research team to avoid all kinds of false applications of conductive agents.

In fact, in recent years Prof. Yang’s team has made a series of important advances in the field of compact energy storage that emphasizes the volume performance of devices. They invented capillary evaporative densification strategies for graphene gels to address the bottleneck problem that the high density and porosity of carbon materials cannot be achieved at the same time, which allowed them to succeed in obtaining high-density porous carbon materials. To pursue small-volume and high-capacity energy storage devices, they proposed the design principles of energy storage devices with high volume, energy, and density in terms of strategies, methods, materials, electrodes, and devices, which finally brought the successful construction of high-capacity energy storage materials, electrodes, and devices. All these achievements have laid a solid foundation for the practical application of carbon nanomaterials and effectively promoted the practical process of new electrochemical energy storage devices based on carbon nanomaterials. Moreover, it is notable that the research results have been successively published in major international academic journals.

It is interesting to note that Yang, with great curiosity and passion for scientific research, will sometimes compose a poem to present some of the progress in carbon research and his understandings.

For example, he wrote poems on conductive networks and ion steric hindrance recently. In the poem on conductive networks, he introduced the idea that graphene is the most efficient of carbon conductive agents due to the characteristics of its solid surface. Hence, a conductive network with extreme softness, thinness, and denseness is beneficial to enhancing the volume, energy, and density of a lithium battery. In another poem, he pointed out that ion steric hindrance is the bottleneck for the application of graphene conductive agents. Therefore, striping and drilling is the right way for the development of high-rate graphene conductive agents.

In 2007, Yang Quanhong set up an innovation course named “simplicity makes magic: from fullerene, carbon nanotubes to graphene” which was oriented to all TJU undergraduates. The course has become one of the most popular common elective undergraduate course over the past ten years. Yang is willing to act as an envoy of beauty, delivering the beauty of science to more young students.

In this course, “dreams may come”, “simplicity makes magic”, “scientific smell” and “scientific taste” are the keywords. Many undergraduates who make contact with science for the first time are deeply touched by the simplicity and magic of the science world. Students who select this course include science and engineering majors and liberal arts majors. Upon ending of the course, Prof. Yang does not require students to write scientific papers. Instead, he advises students to write papers of different styles, and he even encourages students to write poems.

Two students majoring in chemical engineering submitted poems named “the Beauty of Carbon” and “On Fullerene” respectively as their course papers. The former vividly described the "unexpected beauty" in the discovery of fullerene, the "beauty of loss" in the discovery of carbon nanotubes, and the "beauty of pursuit" in the discovery of graphene, which fully delivered the appeal of carbon as well as scientific research. The latter poem vividly depicts the twisted discovery history of fullerene in which the helplessness in the research process and the joy of tackling challenges are fully presented. Yang was excited by the two poems and enjoyed the happiness of being a teacher. Due to his enthusiasm and obsession with teaching, he was awarded the “outstanding supervisor for undergraduate graduation design”. Furthermore, some of the master students and doctoral students supervised by him received the Fok Ying Tung Young Teacher Award, the Hou Debang Chemical Science and Technology Award for Youth, and other famous international awards.

Zhang Chen, a PhD supervised by Yang, is now a young teacher. He is also the winner of the Carbon Materials Science and Technology Doctoral Dissertation Award donated by Elsevier, a well-known publishing company. In Zhang’s view, what makes Prof. Yang distinguished is that he always has great passion and committed himself to research and teaching. He often pops out fantastic ideas. And he always replies to students’ emails as soon as possible even if he receives them late at night.

"Go to GO, Go for a young dream, GO for the old magic!" Yang Quanhong's poem written before the opening of the second Go to GO Graphene Oxide Forum also reveals his pursuit of carbon all of his life.

By: Jin Chunyan, Ma Yunge
Editors: Sun Xiaofang and Ross Colquhoun