COOKEVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — A Tennessee couple has become a beacon for clean energy technology as more headway is being made to examine and produce alternative solutions.

The husband-and-wife duo, Jiahong Zhu, Ph.D. and Ying Zhang, Ph.D. will be working on a two-year research project after being awarded a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

Only six projects across the country were selected by the DOE. It’s the only one in Tennessee.

“It’s a high risk and hopefully high reward project,” Zhu said.

Both of them are professors of mechanical engineering at Tennessee Tech University and Zhang is also the director of the Center for Manufacturing and Research.

The university recently received new equipment that can help in producing advanced conductors for clean energy technologies. Some examples of clean energy are solar, wind, nuclear power, bioenergy and natural gas. Conductors can be an object or material that allows for the flow of energy like, copper or silver.

Tn Tech Zhu, Zhang
Dr. Zhu and Dr. Zhang stand in front of the VersaMelt gas atomizer – the only equipment of its kind in Tennessee. (Courtesy of Tennessee Tech University)

“It’s the first time for us but also first for anyone,” said Zhu, as the VersaMelt gas atomizer is the only equipment of its kind in Tennessee. The atomization process refines and degasses certain metal alloys that can be customized for other applications.

Their project, “Spray Deposition of Coal-Derived Graphene-Copper Nanocomposites for Advanced Conductors,” will be centered around making new materials from coal-derived graphene and copper. They hope the new material will be an improvement on using copper wires or cables for clean energy applications like what’s used in electric vehicles.

“Currently, they’re using copper, but copper has limitations, and we’re trying to overcome that. Basically, really, we need something new here to improve the conductivity of the key conductors as well as trying to reduce the waste and energy consumption.” Zhu explained graphene is much more conductive than copper.

The couple hopes to find a unique and cost effective way to produce the materials using a spray deposition process.

Tn Tech Zhu, Zhang
(Courtesy of Tennessee Tech University)

“We have a very good team,” Zhang added. Tennessee State University, Copperweld, and Eastern Plating will also be taking part in the research project.

“Tennessee Tech will be responsible for these spray deposition process to make graphene copper nanocomposites,” Zhang said. “Tennessee State – they’re gonna do some material characterization using high resolution instrumentation.”

“It’s good to have talented people nearby,” Zhang continued. The two companies will also be helping add some other elements to copper to help with the process.

“Tennessee Tech over the last 10 years has put in a lot of effort to build some kind of infrastructure for this kind of research.” Zhu added. “Without this kind of support, we cannot get our hands dirty.”

This isn’t the first project the couple has worked on together. Zhang said they actually worked on a DOE project years ago, “This is the second large grant we got together.”

“As this project comes and we started to work together, I got to know my wife more,” Zhu said. “I’m really a lot more appreciative of her.”

Zhang and Zhu said they hope the research can shed light on how important copper-based materials can be for clean energy applications.

“This could improve the efficiency of everything from electric vehicles and airplanes to the cable industry. With high conductivity, you can use less material,” said Zhu.

If you’re interested in learning more about the duo’s research project, you can click on this link.