Courtesy of UCLA Samueli

Yuzhang Li, an assistant professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, has received two major awards in support of his research — a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and a Doctoral New Investigator Grant from the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund (ACS PRF). The two awards combined will provide more than $670,000 in research funding.

Li’s research group utilizes techniques from physics, materials science, chemistry and engineering to advance energy and environmental technologies. This multidisciplinary approach involves engineering state-of-the-art, atomic-level imaging technologies and designing new materials. Li’s research has applications in developing renewable energy, promoting sustainability and addressing global climate change.

The CAREER Award is the NSF’s highest honor for faculty members in the early stages of their teaching and research careers. Li will receive five years of funding, worth more than $562,000, to support research to develop high-energy, fast-charging and efficient lithium batteries — an energy- storage technology considered critical to decreasing society’s dependence on fossil fuels.

Specifically, Li will use cryogenic electron microscopy — an advanced imaging technique that implements electron beams to create images of frozen samples — to unravel the nanoscale processes that drive the assembly of lithium atoms into a 3D structure, a process called electrodeposition. Insights from the research could help overcome existing obstacles in lithium electrodeposition by offering a roadmap to improve the process.

The ACS PRF grant program supports researchers who are in the first three years of their careers with a two-year, $110,000 grant. The award will fund Li’s research on the development of new materials to store and distribute natural gas, a cleaner-burning alternative to coal. He will focus on metal-organic frameworks, a class of materials that are highly porous and primed for gas molecules to attach to their ample surface area, a process called adsorption. Using cryogenic electron microscopy, he will look at ways to fine-tune the materials so they can hold gas more efficiently.

Li joined the UCLA faculty in 2020, following a postdoctoral fellowship at Stanford University, where he also received his Ph.D. He has been selected as a Highly Cited Researcher for the past two years by the global analytics firm Clarivate, which specializes in academia, scientific research and intellectual property. In 2021, Li was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30 list for science.