College of Science

Physics’ Wang wins prestigious Air Force Young Investigator Research Program Award


Clemson University physicist Yao Wang has received a prestigious 2023 Young Investigator Research Program Award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research, the basic research arm of the Air Force Research Laboratory, to support his research on superconductivity.

Wang is an assistant professor in the College of Science’s Department of Physics and Astronomy.

“Yao Wang is a creative and productive young physicist. His work will elucidate the physics underlying the superconductivity of nickelates and ultimately cuprates, leading to important advances in superconducting materials. This prestigious research award is certainly well deserved,” said Sean Brittain, chair of the Department of Physics and Astronomy.

First recipient

Wang is the first AFOSR YIP recipient from Clemson’s College of Science.

AFRL/AFOSR awarded $25 million in grants to 58 scientists and engineers from 44 research institutions and businesses in 22 states for 2023. 

Wang will receive $450,000 over three years for his research project investigating properties of superconductors.

headshot of Yao Wang
Yao Wang

Superconductors are one of the most attractive materials for modern science and are at the cornerstone of the next technological revolution. They have been applied to power transmission, quantum computing, controlled fusion, medical imaging and high-speed transportation. And they hold promise for other applications in industry and the military.

A limitation that has restricted the wide application of superconductors is that it usually requires extremely low temperatures — below 40 Kelvin, known as the McMillan limit — to stabilize the superconducting state. Keeping such a low temperature is expensive.

But in 1986, an important breakthrough occurred with the discovery of unconventional superconductivity in copper oxide (cuprate) materials. This material easily breaks the McMillan limit and raises transition temperatures to about 130K, making it possible to rely on cheap liquid nitrogen to maintain the low temperature needed by superconductors.

The discovery of cuprates enabled most daily applications of superconductors. But scientists don’t have a full understanding of its mechanism, which is key to improving their performance.  Existing investigations have suggested several potential ingredients likely related to superconductivity, but have been unable to conclusively determine the dominant mechanism because of limitations in theory and experiments. 

Trying to identify the mechanism

In the periodic table, nickel sits next to copper. The structure and chemical environments of the two materials are very similar. The recent realization of superconductivity in nickelates provides an opportunity to compare properties in nickelates and cuprates that are potentially relevant for superconductivity.

“It may help identify these dominant factors crucial for superconductivity,” Wang said of his research project titled “Theoretical Study for Infinite-Layer Nickelate Superconductors.” While his research group is theoretical and computational, it closely collaborates with experimental colleagues in the study of correlated and quantum materials.

Wang said the mechanism he is looking for in this project is expected to apply to other unconventional superconductors among correlated materials, especially cuprates, ultimately pushing the operational temperature of superconductors closer to our daily lives.  That could potentially revolutionize how energy is made, transported and stored.

Exceptional ability

YIP is open to scientists and engineers at U.S. research institutions. They must have received a Ph.D. or equivalent degree in the last seven years and show exceptional ability and promise for conducting basic research in research areas of relevance to the Department of the Air Force. 

“Through the YIP, the Department of the Air Force (DAF) fosters creative basic research in science and engineering, enhances early career development of outstanding young investigators and increases opportunities for the young investigators to engage in forwarding the DAF mission and related challenges in science and engineering,” said Ellen Robinson, YIP program manager.

This YIP is Wang’s second career award since he joined Clemson in 2020. He recently won a 2022 Early Career Award from the U.S. Department of Energy. He was also the first recipient of that award from the College of Science.

“It is a great pleasure to be selected by Air Force for this prestigious award. I expect a lot of interesting results from the proposed studies, which won’t be possible without this grant,” he said.

Man wearing glasses sitting at a desk talks to student.
Yao Wang, an assistant professor in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, is the recipient of the Young Investigator Research Program Award from the Air Force Office of Scientific Research from Clemson College of Science.

The College of Science pursues excellence in scientific discovery, learning, and engagement that is both locally relevant and globally impactful. The life, physical and mathematical sciences converge to tackle some of tomorrow’s scientific challenges, and our faculty are preparing the next generation of leading scientists. The College of Science offers high-impact transformational experiences such as research, internships and study abroad to help prepare our graduates for top industries, graduate programs and health professions. 

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