Ye receives Best Paper Award for developing innovative methodology to analyze material structure


August Schiess, CSL

Determining the structure of a material is key to manipulating it. If you know the structure of a virus, for example, you can develop drugs to control it. This was the motivation behind recent research by Zichao Ye, a PhD student in materials science and engineering, who won a Best Paper Award at the National Thermal Analysis meeting (ICTAC/NATAS) in Orlando in August 2016.

Zichao Ye and Les Allen with the Best Paper Award at NATAS 2016
Zichao Ye and Les Allen with the Best Paper Award at NATAS 2016
Zichao Ye and Les Allen with the Best Paper Award at NATAS 2016
Using melting points as a tool to understand the material properties, Ye determined the structure of silver alkanethiolate, a layered material whose structure mirrors many others, like graphene or human cell membranes.

It will provide insight into applications such as manipulating melting points of materials and understanding the thermodynamic properties of human cell membranes. 

“We believe that this is a golden nugget of science. All material properties originate from bonding energies but measuring these energies directly is extremely difficult. By measuring melting properties systematically, we uncover the core energy basis that is at the heart of all material attributes,” said Ye, advised by CSL Professor Les Allen.

Melting points as a methodology for multi-layer structure analysis is a novel concept that provides insight into the fundamental properties of material, such as inorganic or organic, small or large. Although each layer is identical in form to the other layers, each has different properties when connected to the rest of the solid. The mass of an object does not change with shape or size; however, many properties, such as melting temperatures, do change. In this case, the whole is different than the sum of its parts. Measuring each layer’s melting point paves the way to understanding and predicting the solid as a whole.

“Using size-dependent melting to investigate structure is a new quantitative methodology. By measuring the energy of a structure, we can grasp the inner essence of why and how it forms,” said Ye.

Silver alkanethiolate is a simple model for human cell membrane material (lipids), whose thermodynamic properties are very important for human bodies and cell metabolism. Therefore, understanding silver alkanethiolate will provide insight into these biological lipids as well.

Armed with the knowledge of a material’s internal energy, the melting and transition points of the layers can be manipulated—if only by a few degrees—by intentionally tailoring the structural segments.  This is especially critical in human biology where living temperatures range only a few degrees.

“Now that we have access to this new thermal analysis, the structures of entire groups of materials can be better understood and manipulated,” said Allen, a professor of materials science and engineering. “This is a promising new direction in our research allowing us to investigate a wide variety of materials.”