Cui Yi: In­ven­tor sparks break­throughs

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By QI­DONG ZHANG in San Fran­cisco kel­lyzhang@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

The date was March 8, 2013, and the man speak­ing at an un­of­fi­cial Con­gres­sional meet­ing was Ge­orge Shultz, the for­mer US sec­re­tary of State.

“We have a young man named Yi Cui from Stan­ford sit­ting here to­day (in Congress) who has great in­ven­tions,’’ said Shultz. “His re­search and study will help solve some of the most chal­leng­ing en­ergy and en­vi­ron­men­tal is­sues, and I ask for your sup­port for what he is do­ing.”

For Cui, the ex­pe­ri­ence was “pro­found and touch­ing”

“When that mo­ment came, I was very proud of whom I am and felt a strong sense of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties as a sci­en­tist,” said Cui, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of ma­te­rial sci­ence and en­gi­neer­ing at Stan­ford Univer­sity in Cal­i­for­nia.

On their pri­vate jet to Wash­ing­ton to­gether, Shultz asked Cui to pre­pare for a one-minute-pitch to House Speaker John Boehner, know­ing time would be ex­tremely limited in a pri­vate meet­ing.

“I pre­pared for my speech and printed a two-slide demo, which made the most im­pres­sion and we ended up talk­ing a lot longer,’’ said Cui. “Al­though no im­me­di­ate de­ci­sion was made, I was in­tro­duced to many con­gres­sional de­ci­sion mak­ers.” Big in­ven­tor

At age 38, Cui al­ready has close to 40 high-tech patents and some of his in­ven­tions have been widely rec­og­nized for their break­throughs in sci­en­tific re­search.

He in­vented a high-en­ergy bat­tery that can make an elec­tri­cal car run for 1,000 miles with­out be­ing charged. Tech­nol­ogy he in­tro­duced is en­hanc­ing new ways to drain salt from ocean wa­ter and make it drink­able. The ma­te­ri­als his team is work­ing on now would block dust and haze and fil­ter air pol­lu­tion in China. His most widely known and re­cent in­ven­tion is a recharge­able lithium-ion bat­tery with high-en­ergy den­sity and a long life cy­cle, which dra­mat­i­cally im­proves their per­for­mance. The bat­tery’s elec­trode recharges it­self, open­ing a new and commercial path for mak­ing the next gen­er­a­tion of lithium-ion bat­ter­ies for elec­tric cars, cell phones and other de­vices.

Charles Lieber, Mark Hy­man pro­fes­sor of chem­istry at Har­vard Univer­sity and a world leader in nan­otech­nol­ogy who was Cui’s doc­to­rial the­sis ad­viser, praised him highly.

“Yi has been leading a dy­namic re­search team and con­ducted highly in­no­va­tive re­search on en­ergy and en­vi­ron­ment at Stan­ford. In­deed, when he was still a doc­toral stu­dent in my re­search group back in 1998-2002, he al­ready demon­strated ex­cep­tional cre­ativ­ity, a deep in­tel­lect, strong self-mo­ti­va­tion and fear­less­ness that al­lowed him to carry out pi­o­neer­ing and highly in­no­va­tive work that led the world in na­no­elec­tron­ics and started the field of nano-bio­elec­tron­ics” said Lieber.

At 28, Cui was named re­cip­i­ent of the “2004 World Top 100 Young In­no­va­tor Award’’ by MIT Tech­nol­ogy Re­view. He was awarded $10 mil­lion in re­search funds for be­ing one of the top 12 sci­en­tists selected around from the world for the “2008 King Ab­dul­lah Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy (KAUST) In­ves­ti­ga­tor Award”. His awards also in­clude the “2010 Wil­son Prize” from Har­vard Univer­sity, and the “2013 IUPAC Distin­guished Award for Novel Ma­te­ri­als and Their Syn­the­sis”. In 2013, he re­ceived a “Next Power Vis­it­ing Chair Pro­fes­sor­ship’’ from Na­tional Ts­ing Hua Univer­sity in Tai­wan.

One of his most sig­nif­i­cant hon­ors came in 2009 from China. He was one of the six Chi­nese-Amer­i­can sci­en­tists in­vited to the re­view­ing stage at Bei­jing’s Tian’an­men Square to cel­e­brate the China’s 50th na­tional day. Al­though he wasn’t able to make it due to a sched­ule con­flict at Stan­ford, he said he con­sid­ered the in­vi­ta­tion sig­nif­i­cant recog­ni­tion com­ing from his moth­er­land. China fac­tor

Cui at­tributes his sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy re­search achieve­ments to a stronger China to­day, and much more open com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­tween Chi­nese and US sci­en­tists.

Orig­i­nally from Guangxi prov­ince and who came to the US in 1998, Cui got his bach­e­lor’s de­gree in chem­istry at the Univer­sity of Sci­ence and Tech­nol­ogy of China in 1998, and doc­toral de­gree in chem­istry from Har­vard. Af­ter his Miller post­doc­toral fel­low­ship at UC, Berke­ley, he be­came an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford in 2005.

“Be­fore I came to Stan­ford, my work was more re­search ori­ented in find­ing new ma­te­ri­als and good ma­te­rial. I gath­ered a lot of knowl­edge dur­ing the progress with­out solv­ing prac­ti­cal prob­lems. So some­times I felt like walk­ing into a wall and stuck. Af­ter I came to Stan­ford, I started to re-di­rect my thoughts and fo­cus on the prac­tice and us­age of new ma­te­ri­als and to solve prob­lems with nano tech­nol­ogy in three key fields: en­ergy, en­vi­ron­ment and biotech,” said Cui.

Am­prius Inc is an out­come of that work. He started his com­pany in 2008 af­ter his break­through in­ven­tion on high­en­ergy den­sity stor­age with $5 mil­lion raised from ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists, pri­vate in­vestors and Stan­ford. With 30 em­ploy­ees in the US and 30 in China, the com­pany is sell­ing prod­ucts that can be used in cell phones and for re­lated prod­ucts in both mar­kets. Cui said he aims at a pos­si­ble IPO in the near fu­ture.

Be­liev­ing sci­ence and tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion is cru­cial to iden­tify chal­lenges in to­day’s world, Cui has found a way to con­nect re­search, de­vel­op­ment, com­mer­cial­iza­tion and man­u­fac­tur­ing.

“For tech­nol­ogy in­no­va­tion, we have to find out what is needed, what prob­lem is there, how we make tech­nol­ogy to solve those prob­lems,” he said.

En­ergy was the first chal­lenge Cui chose to tackle since teach­ing at Stan­ford in 2005.

“We need longer-last­ing bat­ter­ies for cell phones and com­put­ers, and es­pe­cially por­ta­ble power for elec­tric cars to save pol­lu­tion and de­crease our de­pen­dence on petroleum, which has been my pri­mary fo­cus in the past few years,” he said.

Be­liev­ing in a bright out­look for the elec­tric car in­dus­try, Cui said that his new break­through tech­nol­ogy ad­dresses three key is­sues in elec­tric car in­dus­try: price, bat­tery ca­pac­ity and safety.

“In five years or more, Tesla’s elec­tric cars can po­ten­tially run 500 miles with­out charg­ing. It (Tesla) could build less charg­ing sta­tions with my tech­nol­ogy. It (the tech­nol­ogy) is al­ready avail­able, but it needs time to be tested, which can take a long time. The cur­rent bat­tery costs ap­prox­i­mately $40,000 in mar­ket. My in­ven­tion on lithium-ion recharge­able bat­tery uti­lizes five-time cheaper build­ing ma­te­ri­als, which will lead to a sig­nif­i­cant drop in the price of the bat­tery and even­tu­ally it would be an af­ford­able price point for ev­ery con­sumer,” said Cui. En­vi­ron­men­tal tech

His in­ven­tion also ad­dresses the most ur­gent en­vi­ron­men­tal chal­lenge China is fac­ing to­day: dust and haze up to PM2.5, which po­ten­tially dam­ages lungs and is caused by the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els in ve­hi­cles, power plants and var­i­ous in­dus­trial pro­cesses.

“In China, people are suf­fer­ing ev­ery day from pol­lu­tion of dust and haze. Sci­en­tists around the world are rac­ing to a so­lu­tion and I feel the most ur­gent re­spon­si­bil­ity as a sci­en­tist orig­i­nally from China,’’ he said. “The govern­ment is tak­ing mea­sures to make changes, but it will take time since the pol­lu­tion comes from ve­hi­cles, coal burn­ing and in­dus­trial man­u­fac­tur­ing.”

Cui and his team is work­ing on a break­through fil­tra­tion tech­nol­ogy that can block 100 per­cent of PM2.5 pol­lu­tion, a tech­nol­ogy that “will also make his­tory when an­nounced to the world,” said Cui with ex­cite­ment.

“We tested the masks sold in the mar­ket, most of them don’t block PM2.5, but ours can block to 100 per­cent. Our tech­nol­ogy will be im­ple­mented into the pro­duc­tion of a prod­uct which is com­fort­able to wear for ev­ery­one, and a win­dow screen ev­ery fam­ily can in­stall to block dust and haze com­pletely from their homes,” he said.

Cui at­tributes his in­ven­tions and suc­cess to Stan­ford, say­ing the school pro­vides full sup­port for his re­search and de­vel­op­ment work.

“Once stu­dents and pro­fes­sors re­ported that our lab equip­ment was less ad­vanced com­pared to peer in­sti­tu­tions, the Stan­ford ad­min­is­tra­tion in­vested a lot of money to up­grade them. The school re­ally lis­tens to our needs,” he said.

Cui also at­tributes his suc­cess to the in­no­va­tion cul­ture at Stan­ford.

“The cul­ture of Stan­ford is very typ­i­cal of Sil­i­con val­ley. It is in­no­va­tion, in­no­va­tion, and in­no­va­tion. I of­ten hear people say the Chi­nese can be in­di­vid­u­ally suc­cess­ful but don’t have enough in­no­va­tion spirit within. I don’t think it’s true. I am from China and learn­ing from my own ex­pe­ri­ence, I be­lieve we just need ‘the click­ing mo­ment’ to ini­ti­ate in­no­va­tion. The Chi­nese are hard­work­ing and smart, once a click­ing mo­ment is in place, in­no­va­tion is un-stop­pable. As an ed­u­ca­tor at Stan­ford, my job is to light a fire un­der my stu­dents. I ex­change ideas with my stu­dents by go­ing through their projects, iden­ti­fy­ing prob­lems and chal­lenges and help them find so­lu­tion.” Like a sponge

How is in­no­va­tion ac­com­plished? Cui be­lieves the key is that “a per­son should be like a sponge, ab­sorb­ing knowl­edge, ideas and thoughts of other great thinkers in or­der to make progress and con­nect all dots to in­no­va­tion.”

Cui, who has taught 10 post­doc­toral stu­dents from China’s most out­stand­ing uni­ver­si­ties since 2005, said the per­son who “lit the fire” un­der him was his doc­toral ad­viser, Charles Lieber, at Har­vard’s School of En­gi­neer­ing and Ap­plied Sci­ence, whom he con­sid­ers a men­tor.

“He is a thinker and puts end­less ef­fort into sci­en­tific mind stream­ing which truly in­spired me. I never knew of any­one who can be so ded­i­cated to sci­ence, re­search and prob­lem solv­ing. He taught me sci­ence has no bound­aries, and if one reads to gain a lot of knowl­edge, iden­ti­fies prob­lems in re­search, and makes ded­i­cated ef­forts with pas­sion, in­no­va­tion even­tu­ally comes by,” said Cui.

Stan­ford also caused in­no­va­tive sparks and friend­ship be­tween Cui and Steven Chu, the for­mer US sec­re­tary of En­ergy who is now a physics pro­fes­sor at Stan­ford, and a board mem­ber of Am­prius Inc.

“I have been amazed by how he (Chu) can al­ways iden­tify the core prob­lems of a chal­lenge and come up with so­lu­tions. Once we were sup­posed to meet for lunch, but talked for more than four hours in­stead and to­tally for­got that we had not eaten any­thing. We are like-minded and share kin­dred spir­its when it comes to en­ergy and en­vi­ron­ment is­sues. He is an in­cred­i­bly ca­pa­ble sci­en­tist and a proven leader,” said Cui.

Wish­ing to carry the same in­no­va­tion spirit to his stu­dents at Stan­ford, Cui said sci­ence is like life it­self with its ups and downs, which takes a lot of ded­i­ca­tion and con­tin­u­ous ef­fort. He said he ex­pe­ri­enced be­ing “burnt out” when he was get­ting his doc­toral de­gree at Har­vard.

“I worked too hard and to some de­gree, the psy­cho­log­i­cal and phys­i­cal pres­sure made me puzzle the mean­ing of sci­en­tific re­search. Some doc­toral stu­dents do give up at such mo­ments. But I learned how to cope with that chal­leng­ing mo­ment and man­aged to re­cover. Then it was like hav­ing had an im­mune shot on pres­sure, pres­sure never both­ered me again. Now I con­sider my­self hav­ing adapted abil­ity of per­form­ing well un­der pres­sure.”

Cui, mod­est and soft-spo­ken, be­comes very as­sured when he de­scribes the lega­cies he wants to leave the world: “I want to cre­ate tech­nolo­gies that have pro­found im­pact in en­ergy and en­vi­ron­ment that ben­e­fit people. I also want to help my stu­dents to be­come suc­cess­ful re­searchers and in­no­va­tors who make a dif­fer­ence to the world.”

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QI­DONG ZHANG / CHINA DAILY

Cui Yi, at his lab­o­ra­tory at Stan­ford Univer­sity, is a top Chi­nese sci­en­tist in en­ergy, en­vi­ron­ment and biotech.

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