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Honored by Nature for making a difference in science in 2015, Zhenan Bao talks about the impact of GCEP on her career
Zhenan Bao, a professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University, has pioneered a number of novel materials-design concepts for organic electronics. Her innovations include the first all-carbon solar cell, and skin-inspired materials for medical devices, energy storage and environmental applications. An author of close to 400 refereed publications, she has over 60 U.S. patents and directs the Bao Research Group, which boasts more than 40 current members.
Bao has been the principal investigator on five GCEP efforts ranging from research on low-cost, high-performance organic photovoltaic cells to her current work on self-healing polymers for high energy-density lithium-ion batteries.
The American Institute of Chemical Engineers honored Bao with the Andreas Acrivos Award for Professional Progress in Chemical Engineering in 2014. Business Insider named her one of the “13 most impressive professors at Stanford” and Nature recently recognized her for making a difference in science in 2015.
She is also an associate editor of Chemical Sciences and a co-founder and member of the board of directors of C3 Nano, a commercial startup based on her research on flexible transparent electrodes.
Prior to joining Stanford in 2004, Bao was a distinguished member of the technical staff at Bell Labs, Lucent Technologies. Bao received a Ph.D. in Chemistry from the University of Chicago.
She took some time to answer some questions for us.
How did you decide to enter into research? Your parents were both professors at the Nanjing University. How did their background influence your decision?.
I was not sure initially whether I wanted to go to academia. I knew what the academic path would be like since my parents were professors, but I always wondered what other career paths would be like. I was very lucky that I got a job at Bell Labs after earning my Ph.D. That allowed me flexibility to get exposure to both academic and industry research. After spending several years at Bell Labs, I found that I enjoyed the research environment in academia more.
How has your participation in GCEP impacted your career at Stanford?
GCEP funding was instrumental in helping me to move into energy research. The support from GCEP allowed me to get into solar cells, battery and CO2 capture, all of which take advantage of my lab group’s expertise in functional polymer and carbon nano-material design and application. This really expanded the horizon of our research and allowed us to develop new chemistry and a new understanding of the materials we developed. We were able to subsequently secure funding from NSF, DOE and industry based on work funded by GCEP.
You have more than 40 students in your own lab group today. How do you manage to mentor such a large group of young people?
I am fortunate to have a group of highly motivated and hard-working students. They constantly inspire me. I schedule regular group meetings and sub-group meetings so that I am able to talk with each student about their progress and other issues. I enjoy the discussions and meetings with my students.
Students from your research group were honored at this year’s GCEP symposium, both as a GCEP Distinguished Student Lecturer and for their outstanding poster presentations. What is the secret behind the success of the Bao Research Group?
I believe it is important to provide an environment and promote a group culture so that students can fully realize their potential. My students work hard and collaborate well with each other, and when they are recognized for their efforts, we are all excited and proud.
Please tell us how your current GCEP research in self-healing polymers could lead to energy products and systems with significantly lower greenhouse gas emissions?
Electrification of vehicles can shift transportation energy from petroleum-based fuels to the electric grid. This shift represents a great opportunity for dramatic reductions in greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., approaching 30% reduction). The lithium-ion battery is one of the most promising candidates to power electrical vehicles, but at present, this technology lacks adequate capacity, which impacts vehicle range. Our approach, using self-healing polymers to enable stable operation of low-cost and high energy-density electrode materials, will potentially allow the development of affordable electric vehicles with adequate range. This development is crucial for future implementation of electric-vehicle technology at a significant scale.
What about your other GCEP efforts – what results from that body of work are you most excited about?
In addition to your research publications you are also hold more than 60 patents. Please give us some examples of how you see your research translating into real-world applications?
When we design our research projects, our guiding principle is to solve key challenges in a given field. As a result, we need to take radically new approaches to solving such long-standing problems. However, doing so will allow us to make significant impacts on practical applications. To translate our ideas to real-world applications, we have started spinoff companies and work with existing companies.
Based on the output from your laboratory, what is your vision for the future of energy?
For each energy application, important considerations are cost and net-energy consumption for production. There are many promising technology solutions for each case. In the early stage, it is important to continue funding high-risk, high-return projects. This will enable new solutions to energy problems.
What advice do you give your students considering a career in energy?
For students, the most important advice is to receive training and practice on problem solving. Once they are well equipped with such skills, they will be able to solve difficult problems in the future.
December 17, 2015
Bao’s GCEP Research Fact Sheets:
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