College of Engineering News Room

Bullish Impacts at the Sub-Nanoscale

by Russell Nay

USF Mechanical Engineering assistant professor Michael Cai Wang was recently awarded an NSF CAREER Award and plans to use it to support his work in advancing nanoscale manufacturing.

Wang and the NM3L

Michael Cai Wang (third from left) leads the NanoManufacturing, NanoMaterials, NanoMechanics Laboratory (NM3L) at USF and is pictured with his lab’s current and former student researchers, including Ph.D. students Ossie Douglas, MD Rubayat-e Tanjil, Yunjo Jeong, and Zhewen Yin.

USF Mechanical Engineering assistant professor Michael Cai Wang was awarded an NSF CAREER Award this February. The National Science Foundation CAREER award is “the most prestigious award in support of early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization” as described by NSF.

“It’s a definite morale booster for my lab and a strong affirmation that we’re moving in the right direction,” Wang said. “I’m very grateful for the support from NSF’s Advanced Manufacturing program, and this award will support basic and translational research aligned with the mission of our university to be a regionally, nationally, and globally-engaged public metropolitan research university.”

Wang’s lab — the NanoManufacturing, NanoMaterials, NanoMechanics Laboratory (NM3L) — is developing new methods for scalable manufacturing of materials precisely controlled at the sub-nanometer, or Ångström scale.

A nanometer is a billionth of a meter, and for reference, dimensions of viruses are on the order of tens to hundreds of nanometers. An Ångström — the level of manufacturing precision Wang’s team is pursuing — is a tenth of a nanometer. Materials manufactured accurately at this extreme sub-nanometer scale can be given extremely precise and unprecedented properties. They’re capable of selectively confining and sieving molecules and act conceptually like a complex shape sorting toy with designer geometries and arbitrary layers.

These materials could be used in a number of applications, like increasing pharmaceutical drug yields, speeding up the process of biomolecule sequencing, helping to curb reliance of rare earth elements, and stabilizing quantum computing components.

“We have robust facilities, and a special shoutout has to go to the Nanotechnology Research and Education Center here — to Robert Tufts and the entire team — because without NREC, none of my work here at USF is possible,” Wang said.

This isn’t all that Wang’s NSF CAREER Award supports, however. Integrated with his lab’s research are several educational and outreach initiatives designed to engage students of various ages and backgrounds with nanomaterials-centered research and experiences at USF, serving as a long-term recruiting mechanism for the university and college.

Wang’s specific target groups include veteran students, students from local community colleges and non-four-year schools, and K-12 students who are currently underrepresented in engineering.

This involves partnerships with institutions like the Florida Advanced Technological Education Center and Hillsborough Community College. HCC students and transfer students coming to USF are extended research opportunities at NM3L, and community college teachers state-wide will be invited for annual, two-day workshops at USF on the latest advances in nanoscale manufacturing technologies.

The wide applicability of his lab’s research makes it an effective window into engineering research at USF for many potential students. Wang said it’s all part of fostering the training of a diverse and globally-competitive advanced manufacturing workforce and a vibrant student body at USF.

“Constant dripping wears away the stone,” Wang said. “It’s this persistent, unrelenting effort to get students through the pipeline of our future scientific and engineering workforce.”

Wang said he came to USF because of its status as a large up-and-coming university with potential to make significant advances in its international stature. He hopes that even as a relatively young faculty member, he’ll have an impact on USF’s trajectory as a university for years to come.

“I think I’m going to be doing research until my deathbed,” he said. “This (NSF CAREER award) allows me to do ambitious, long-term research. We can go after the crazy ideas that no one’s thought of or no one thinks would work.”