With Project, Physics Professor ‘Pushing the Limit of Our Understanding’

By Adam Jones

Work led by a University of Alabama physics professor will help grasp behavior of emerging materials while unstable that could lead to more efficient and controllable uses for energy and information processing applications.

Dr. Wang Kong Tse was recently awarded a 2018 Early Career Research Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Dr. Wang-Kong Tse, UA assistant professor of physics, was recently awarded a grant from the 2018 Early Career Research Program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Energy, one of 84 scientists from across the nation to receive funding.

Tse will lead theoretical work in examining van der Waals materials, stacked, two-dimensional materials, when placed in what is called a non-equilibrium state, a condition where the material’s resting state is being perturbed by an external field.

“Because van der Waals materials are quite well understood in equilibrium, my job as a scientist is to push the limit of our understanding further to explore the non-equilibrium behavior of these materials,” Tse said.

Particularly, the project will examine the materials when driven to strong non-equilibrium conditions by an intense laser, looking at the magnetic, interaction and electric transport properties, he said.

“There are still a lot of unknowns in this nascent field, and, therefore, we can make meaningful contributions to these important questions,” Tse said. “The questions posed are interesting and challenging, and if we can answer those questions successfully, the scientific payoffs can be enormous in the longer term.”

The two-dimensional van der Waals materials hold promise in a range of applications because of their electronic and magnetic properties. The materials get their name from Dutch scientist Johannes Diderik van der Waals who found weak short-distance attraction between atoms and molecules, and this attraction, or van der Waals force, is what binds the two-dimensional atomic layers together in crystals such as graphite.

Perhaps the most common example of a two-dimensional van der Waals material is graphene. Discovered as a unique material in 2004, graphene is an atomically thin layer of graphite that is stronger and lighter than any metal or carbon-based material. It is already finding uses in touchscreens, batteries, solar cells, and chemical sensors, among others, with new applications on the horizon.

Since graphene, scientists have discovered a large family of similar materials that has led to research into their characteristics and applications.

“There is tremendous interest now in van der Waals materials as they could provide new platform for next-generation nanoscale photovoltaic applications and optoelectronic applications,” Tse said. “Therefore, understanding the non-equilibrium properties of laser-driven van der Waals materials could lead to more efficient photovoltaic solar cells, and optically controllable electronic or magnetic components for quantum information processing and storage.”

The grant will provide $750,000 over the next five years to assist Tse in bringing on a graduate student and post-doctoral researcher.

The University of Alabama, the state’s oldest and largest public institution of higher education, is a student-centered research university that draws the best and brightest to an academic community committed to providing a premier undergraduate and graduate education. UA is dedicated to achieving excellence in scholarship, collaboration and intellectual engagement; providing public outreach and service to the state of Alabama and the nation; and nurturing a campus environment that fosters collegiality, respect and inclusivity.