Lab profile: Hui-Ming Cheng, Institute of Metal Research, Chinese Academy of Sciences


Carbon nanomaterials have been one of the most exciting and active areas of research in materials science over the last 30 years. But Hui-Ming Cheng, who leads an internationally recognized research group exploring the synthesis of carbon nanotubes, graphene and other two-dimensional materials and their applications, initially chose the field for very practical reasons. At the time, Cheng was short of research funds and wanted to use simple, home-made tubular furnace to produce single-walled carbon nanotubes.

Now he and his team are developing carbon-based composites, electronic, optoelectronic, and energy storage devices for advanced technologies. Already, five high-tech companies have been spun-off based on his research. Cheng has also published over 350 peer-reviewed papers and received several international and national awards, including the Charles E. Pettinos Award (American Carbon Society) and the Prize for Scientific and Technological Progress of Ho Leung Ho Lee Foundation. He has served as an Editor of the journal Carbon, and is currently Editor-in-Chief of Energy Storage Materials and Honorary Editor-in-Chief of New Carbon Materials.

Hui-Ming Cheng talked to Materials Today about his highly successful lab, research, and where his future plans might take him.

How long has your team been running?

I started my small research group from scratch in 1993, which grew into the Advanced Carbon Division in 2001 when the Shenyang National Laboratory for Materials Science was set up by the Ministry of Science and Technology of China.

How many staff makes up your team?

My laboratory currently has around 30 research staff, technicians, and administrative assistants, six post-docs, and about 60 graduate students.

What are the major themes of research in your lab?

We have been working on the synthesis of carbon nanotubes, graphene, and other two-dimensional materials and their applications in composites, electronic/optoelectronic devices, energy storage devices, etc. We are also developing high-performance photocatalytic materials and energy storage materials, as well as the devices that use them. In addition, we are fabricating high-performance bulk carbon and graphitic materials for various practical uses. Our focus ranges from fundamental studies to applied research and development, right up to commercialization. In fact, five high-tech companies using our developed technologies have been spun off.

How and why did you come to work in these areas?

When I started my research career independently in 1993 with little research funding, I chose carbon nanotubes and carbon nanofibers as my field, partially because of my educational background on carbon materials, partially because it was the frontier of carbon research, and more importantly because I was short of research funds and tried to grow carbon nanofibers and nanotubes using simple and cheap home-made equipment: a horizontal tube furnace. Since then we have gradually widened our research scope to include high-performance bulk carbon and graphitic materials in 1999, energy storage in 2001, where carbon materials play a key role, photocatalytic semiconducting materials for converting solar energy into hydrogen in 2004, and graphene materials in 2007.

We mainly focus on the controllable synthesis of carbon nanotubes and graphene with preferred structures and properties, and applications of these materials in composites, energy storage and conversion materials, and electronic/optoelectronic devices. Because carbon materials are traditionally important components in energy storage devices, we have devoted great effort to the development of carbon materials for electrochemical energy storage devices, such as lithium-ion batteries, lithium-sulfur batteries, and supercapacitors. For sustainable development, materials and devices for solar energy conversion, such as water splitting and carbon dioxide reduction, are being explored in my lab. In addition to nanocarbons, we have also been working on the fabrication and real applications of bulk graphitic materials, such as isotropic pyrolytic graphite, and carbon-based composites with excellent mechanical, thermal, and sealing properties.

What facilities and equipment does your lab have?

We have a complete set of facilities for the synthesis and characterization of nanocarbon materials and their composites and devices, such as chemical vapor deposition (CVD) furnaces from small to large sizes, arc discharge equipment, atomic layer deposition, scanning electron microscope (SEM), laser Raman spectroscope, adsorption analyzer, thermogravimetry and differential scanning calorimetry (TG-DSC) analyzer, transmission electron microscope (TEM), in-situ TEM holders, electrochemical work stations, a small cleanroom and related facilities, a prototype full battery assembly line, photocatalytic water splitting equipment, and more.

Do you have a favorite piece of equipment?

I like my floating catalyst CVD furnace for growing carbon nanotubes because it is a simple, efficient, continuous, and powerful tool for mass production.

What do you think has been your most influential work to date?

We have published quite a few very high impact studies to date, among which the synthesis of single-wall carbon nanotubes by floating catalyst CVD, reported in 1998, has probably had the highest influence.

What is the key to running a successful lab?

Keeping an innovative atmosphere, working on frontier topics, and enabling all the members including students to be self-motivated, achieve their full potential, and have their own growth space are key, I think.

How do you plan to develop your lab in the future?

We have already become a very strong team working in several fields. We will be carry on working in these fields from fundamental to applied research, with more focus on applied research and, particularly, the development of new materials, devices, and technologies. (Materials Today )



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