Pritzker Molecular Engineering faculty receive prestigious DOE Early Career Award

Two faculty members from the University of Chicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, Chong Liu, Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Molecular Engineering, and Shuolong Yang, assistant professor of molecular engineering, have been selected to receive the Department of Energy’s (DOE) prestigious Early Career Research Program award.

Now in its 13th year, the DOE program awards each recipient $150,000 per year for five years to advance their research. Overseen by the DOE Office of Science, the award bolsters the nation’s science workforce by providing financial support to exceptional researchers during their critical early-career years, when many create their most formative work.

Liu is a materials and electrochemical engineer whose work centers on the design of optimal solid-state electrodes, which can be used to separate valuable elements from water without the need for harsh solvents. If successful, her work could offer an inexpensive and environmentally friendly method to boost the supply of materials needed to manufacture renewable energy technology.

“It is a great honor to receive this award,” Liu said. “Critical element separation is the core of my group’s research. The proposed work will let us explore a new method to separate the most challenging group of elements, rare earth elements, which are crucial for many areas, including renewable energy, medical imaging, and electronics. We will design materials and methods to enlarge their energy differences in coordination in confinement.”

Her proposal, “Probing the coordination in confinement for electrochemical separation among rare earth elements,” lays out a path to explore the fundamental limits of influential material characteristics for capturing rare earth elements. Liu aims to condense those characteristics into a set of design rules which researchers can use to develop separation systems.

Yang is a quantum engineer focused on understanding the fundamental tenants of quantum physics, including an effort to conclusively verify the existence of “angel particles” through experimentation. His efforts to develop topological superconductors and other quantum materials offer potentially major breakthroughs in the advancement of quantum computing.

“I'm extremely honored and thrilled to receive this award, as it will enable my group to push ultrafast spectroscopies into an exciting new direction,” Yang said. “This will also allow us to connect with materials science programs at Argonne National Laboratory and further enforce the quantum materials supergroup within PME and the University of Chicago.”

His proposal, “Disentangling Quantum Electronic States Layer-by-layer via Space-Frequency Lock-in,” centers on a new type of ultrafast spectroscopy which can disentangle electronic states on the atomic level, layer by layer. This new technique will be applied to topological superconductors and other quantum materials, offering insights critical to the development of quantum technology.

“Supporting talented researchers early in their career is key to fostering scientific creativity and ingenuity within the national research community,” said DOE Office of Science Director Asmeret Asefaw Berhe. “Dedicating resources to these focused projects led by well-deserved investigators helps maintain and grow America’s scientific skill set for generations to come.”

Eighty-three award recipients were chosen from a large and highly competitive pool of applicants, with 51 recipients coming from U.S. universities and 27 from DOE national laboratories.

To be eligible for Early Career Research Program awards, a researcher must be an untenured, tenure-track assistant or associate professor at a U.S. academic institution, or a full-time employee at a DOE National Lab, who received a PhD within the past ten years. Awardees were selected based on peer review by outside scientific experts.