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Atomic-level view affords engineer new insights

Mechanical engineer Guangwen Zhou studies surface structure and chemistry at the atomic level. His work on oxidation and reduction reactions could one day lead to more durable gadgets as well as “greener” electronics-manufacturing processes.

Zhou, who joined Binghamton’s faculty in 2007, recently received a five-year grant of more than $400,000 from the National Science Foundation’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program to support his research.

Zhou plans to create reaction models for the reduction of metal oxides — such as copper oxides — at the atomic scale and then link them to the models for larger-scale reactions. (Time out for a brief chemistry lesson: Oxidation is the loss of electrons. Reduction is the gain of electrons. These processes govern phenomena ranging from fire to rust.)

Zhou’s work takes advantage of new high-tech in situ microscopy techniques that allow him to observe reactions at the atomic level as they’re happening. “Seeing is believing, right?” he says, explaining the benefits of observing chemical reactions in this way. Zhou uses transmission electron microscopes and scanning electron microscopes at Binghamton’s Analytical and Diagnostics Laboratory. He also collaborates with researchers at Brookhaven National Laboratory and the University of Pittsburgh.

The research could enable electronic devices to be manufactured at lower temperatures. It has practical applications for materials processing related to thin films, fuel reactions, heterogeneous catalysis and gas sensing, too. Zhou also intends to develop a virtual transmission electron microscope as part of the project.

“This is a very old field, but we have very little knowledge of these processes at the atomic scale,” he says. “It will push our fundamental understanding forward.”

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