Assistant professor joins mechanical engineering to advance clean energy


By Erin Cassidy Hendrick

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa.— In August, Linxiao Zhu will join the Penn State College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering (ME) as an assistant professor and the John J. and Jean M. Brennan Clean Energy Early Career Professor.

Powering the world in a safer, more efficient way is the springboard for all of Zhu’s research. Specifically, his work will explore how the fundamental properties of heat and light can be understood and controlled by using novel nanostructures and materials, with the ultimate goal of improving the efficiency of current energy devices and developing novel sources of clean energy.

“These ideas are going to be even more critical in the coming years, in order to lower the impact on our environment,” Zhu said. “If people can use energy more efficiently or utilize clean energy sources, that will become important in everyday life.”

While he plans to explore several areas in pursuit of this goal, including exploring new ways to harvest energy from heat, sunlight and a nonconventional resource -- the sky, one particular focus has already led to the development of a laser-free solid-state refrigeration system that uses light to actively cool other devices.

“Currently, the traditional way to achieve air conditioning or refrigeration is to use vapor compression systems,” Zhu said. “The efficiencies of those systems are high, but there are still many ways they can be improved.”

For instance, air conditioning units are bulky and generate noise through their various components.

“For my research, I’m interested in developing a new generation of these systems, and instead of using fluids or chemicals, it would be a solid state with no moving components and a small footprint,” he said.

He was able to achieve this by applying a reverse voltage bias to a commercial infrared light emitting diode to cool other devices, which Zhu says was the first experimental realization in the field. Further exploration of more powerful and space-saving cooling systems like this could enable many new applications, such as in aerospace technology or wearable devices. It could also be integrated into on-chip systems to cool electronic components.

Zhu’s professorship, made possible by the generous support of John and Jean Brennan, was awarded in recognition of his previous accomplishments and future potential in the field. The professorship was created to support an outstanding faculty member whose research is focused on clean energy that will help eliminate the world's dependence on fossil fuels.

In addition to his research, Zhu is also eager to begin engaging students in the classroom, whether it is in person or virtually.

“I hope that all of my students feel a sense of community within my class,” he said. “A remote experience is different, but I will incorporate activities like interactive polls before, during and after class to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

He also explained that a cornerstone of his teaching philosophy is connecting the coursework to real world problems.

“Instead of simply absorbing the knowledge, I want my students to learn intuitively and be able to apply it,” he said. “Teaching is ultimately about students being able to use it in their future endeavors, rather than just having mere knowledge.”

In addition to the ME department, Zhu will also join the Consortium for Integrated Energy Systems, as part of the University’s strategic initiative to strengthen its energy research and education.

Zhu completed his doctoral degree at Stanford University and served as a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Michigan. As he begins his career at Penn State, he hopes he can make an impact in both teaching and research and leverage both the University’s Materials Research Institute and computing resources.

“Penn State has an excellent program in both research and education,” he said. “I’m excited about opportunities for strong collaborations in the ME department and across the University.”


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Megan Lakatos

“These ideas are going to be even more critical in the coming years, due to the issues related to climate change. If people can use less energy or utilize clean energy sources, that will become important in everyday life.”
—Linxiao Zhu