Faculty supervisor: Dr. Donglei Fan
Name of project: Dendritically Porous Graphite Foams for High-Performance All-Solid-State Flexible Supercapacitors and Self-Powered Portable Electronics
Please give a brief, simplified overview of your research project.
For my research project, I sought to enhance the properties of specialized, high surface area, thin graphite by depositing nanomaterials to improve the performance of a supercapacitor (a power storage device).
Describe the tasks you engage in as part of your work.
Most of my work was spent creating samples to run experiments with different nanomaterials added to the graphite. To create samples, I mixed chemical electrolyte solutions, submerged metal foils into the solution, and monitored the process of electroplating dendrites (micro-trees) on the metal surface. I would then anneal the metal (heat it to high temperatures) before depositing graphite on the metal and etching away the metal to leave just the graphite. Once the samples were complete, I would try to deposit the different nanomaterials that would enhance the conducting properties of the material. I read research papers to learn how to apply different methods to deposit these nanomaterials on the specialized thin graphite samples. I sought to improve the methods of depositing nanomaterials. This required cutting sample holders out of Teflon sheets and 3d printing specialized part holders.
Describe what you thought college might be like before you came to UT. Did you consider research when thinking about college?
Thinking back, I expected college to be similar to high school in terms of workload only with more freedom to design my own day-to-day schedule. I recall planning on doing research from the very beginning.
How did you get involved with your research project?
Going into my freshman year, I applied for the FIRE program (a freshman research program for incoming mechanical engineering students). I was placed into Dr. Fan’s lab and continued research there after the program ended. I did research in the lab over the summer and I applied for the Undergraduate Research Program in the fall of my sophomore year.
Do you see your project connecting with your plans for your future?
When I did the research, yes. Since that time, my goals for life have changed and I don’t see a connection between my project and my current trajectory.
What is the most interesting or surprising thing you’ve gotten to do for this project?
I was able to witness firsthand the operation of a scanning electron microscope (SEM). It is a very precise and expensive piece of technology, so I felt privileged to see it in operation as an underclassman undergraduate student.
What advice would you give to a student who was thinking about research?
Students should count the costs before engaging in research – they should consider what they are trying to accomplish with their life (I would say that for any activity). Researchers explore the cutting edge and the tasks often change but there are days when they do the same task repeatedly (in my experience, making samples for instance). The more experience a researcher has, the more they can create new breakthroughs, but the tasks may be especially repetitive for many beginning researchers. It is therefore important that the topic should be one that the student is passionate about.
For earlier undergrads, I would encourage them to try out a few different topics of research that interest them before committing themselves to one topic of research that they aren’t sure they are passionate about for the above reasons.