College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences; Research

Materials science Ph.D. student receives Hitachi Fellowship


Clemson University Ph.D. student Hongkui Zheng has received the 2021-2022 Hitachi High-Tech Electron Microscopy Fellowship to further his research on the development of next-generation rechargeable batteries.

The $25,000 fellowship supports Zheng’s use of highly advanced equipment at the Clemson University Electron Microscopy Facility, where he is working to develop and implement transmission electron microscopy (TEM) techniques that will allow for the investigation of materials used in batteries. With TEM, a beam of electrons is transmitted through a specimen to create an extremely high-resolution image that can give scientific clues about its structure.

Analyzing battery materials is tricky, however.

PhD student Hongkui Zheng, at right, works with faculty advisory Kai He in a microscope lab.
Clemson University Ph.D. student Hongkui Zheng, right, works with Kai He, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, at the Electron Microscopy Facility.

“Most battery materials contain lithium, which is highly reactive with air. We need to protect that material to avoid contamination,” Zheng said. “We have a protective holder that can transfer material into the vacuum within the microscope without exposure to the atmosphere. This can give us real information about the battery materials.”

Characterization of these sensitive materials can aid the development of future battery technologies, said Kai He, assistant professor of materials science and engineering and Zheng’s faculty advisor.

“We also want to cycle the battery within the microscope to mimic its working condition in a real battery cell. Then, we can watch the real-time evolution of the structures and chemical reactions simultaneously,” He said. “This is a really advanced technique that will provide scientific insight into battery development.”

Zheng has authored and coauthored nine peer-reviewed articles and proceedings published in the past two years, including invited review papers focusing on in situ TEM for energy conversion and storage materials for publication in the Advanced Materials and the Journal of Energy Chemistry.

He has garnered national attention for his work to combine focused ion beam (FIB) with TEM techniques to address unanswered questions about the microstructures of electrode-electrolyte interfaces in solid-state batteries. Zheng was invited to present at the Microscopy & Microanalysis Meeting in 2020 and 2021, the top conference in the microscopy field.

Before coming to Clemson, Zheng earned a bachelor’s degree from Hohai University in China and a master’s degree from the University of California-Irvine.

Hitachi High-Tech America established the fellowship in 2014 to support a graduate student using the Clemson University Electron Microscopy Facility to conduct research as part of their doctoral studies. Zheng is the eighth recipient.

A group of people meet on Zoom.
Hitachi representatives joined Clemson University virtually to present the Hitachi fellowship to Ph.D. student Hongkui Zheng. Top row from left: Ann Marie Alexander, Kyle Brinkman, Tanju Karanfil, and Zheng. Middle row from left: Fellowship runner-up Lucian Williams, Kai He, Hitachi’s Craig Kerkove, and Lax Saraf. Bottom row from left: Daniel Noneaker, Hitachi’s Chris Watters, and Jessica Larsen.

“Hitachi is pleased that Mr. Zheng’s research has been able to benefit from the availability of Hitachi electron microscopes located at the Clemson AMRL,” said Lorena Ferry, vice president and general manager, Hitachi High-Tech America. “Using the NB5000 FIB-SEM, H-9500 TEM, SU9000 STEM, and SU-6600 Analytical SEM, Mr. Zheng characterized garnet-type Li7La3Zr2O12 (LLZO) solid electrolytes for various in-situ analyses including damage free cryo-assisted characterization of solid-state battery materials. All of us at Hitachi wish Mr. Zheng continued success and look forward to seeing more of his research.”

Hitachi has been instrumental in both the development of the Clemson University Electron Microscopy Facility in the mid-1990s, as well as its steady growth to become one of the nation’s premier academic electron microscopy facilities. The facility added several new Hitachi electron microscopes in recent years, for example, that are among the global company’s most advanced machines.

“Hitachi has helped Clemson establish one of the premier electron microscopy labs in the country,” said Tanju Karanfil, Clemson vice president for research. “The facility is regularly used by the private sector, as well as faculty, to fuel innovation in South Carolina and throughout the Southeast. Our students, meanwhile, have an opportunity to train on the latest technology available, making them highly desirable in the job market after graduating.”

Anand Gramopadhye, dean of the College of Engineering, Computing and Applied Sciences, said the Hitachi partnership helps support education and research in the college.

“The fellowships provide support for students to conduct research in one of the nation’s top microscopy laboratories,” he said. “I thank Hitachi for its continued support of our students and congratulate Hongkui Zheng on winning this year’s honor.”

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