Aggie Chemist Tianbiao 'Leo' Liu Receives Prestigious NSF CAREER Award

Among the challenges of meeting energy demands of evolving portable devices, electric vehicles and alternative energy storage is developing a safe, affordable, high-energy density and high-power density battery technology alternative to existing options.

Utah State University chemist Tianbiao “Leo” Liu and his team believe they’re on the right track and their USTAR-fuel research is garnering attention.

Liu is the recipient of a 2019 Faculty Early Career Development ‘CAREER’ Award from the National Science Foundation. The NSF’s top grant program for early career development of junior faculty, CAREER awards are given in recognition of demonstrated excellence in research, teaching and the integration of education and research. Liu’s award provides a five-year grant of nearly $600,000.

“We’re very pleased Leo has received this highly competitive and well-deserved recognition,” says USU College of Science Dean Maura Hagan. “He’s conducting seminal research in sustainable energy and creating meaningful learning opportunities for his students.”

With support from USU, Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) Initiative University Technology Acceleration Grants (UTAG) and a Scialog Innovative Award co-funded by the Sloan Foundation and Research Corporation for Science Advancement, Liu is studying and developing neutral aqueous organic redox flow batteries, known as AORFBs.

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“Battery storage of environmentally friendly energy resources, such as solar and wind, presents challenges because of unstable grid energy, heavy cycling that requires frequent charging and discharging, as well as irregular, full recharging,” Liu says. “In addition, we need energy storage electrolyte solutions that are safe and affordable. AORFBs show great promise in fulfilling these needs. This NSF CAREER award will greatly empower my group research capability to develop advanced AORFB technologies for scalable and benign energy storage.”

In addition to innovative research, CAREER awards require an educational component that provides opportunities for aspiring scientists. Liu’s projects fit the bill.

“With colleagues, I’m incorporating my research into early lab courses for undergraduates,” he says. “Students just getting started in chemistry will participate in hands-on, pioneering research as they assemble and test small batteries as part of their lab requirements.”

Liu has also served, for the past two years, as a faculty mentor for USU’s Native American Summer Mentorship Program, which brings USU scholars from satellite campuses to Logan to participate in summer research. As part of his CAREER award, he’ll offer an extended program to enable NASMP participants to engage in more intensive research projects to motivate them to pursue higher STEM degrees.

“Our research allows students to experience the steps of basic research and gain knowledge of fundamental science they can apply beyond our lab,” Liu says. “At the same time, they learn how science fuels practical applications that benefit society.  

AORFB technology will have a “high societal impact,” he says. “That’s my passion. Using science to make people’s lives better.”

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