Emerging ‘new frontier’ of nanoscience and technology garners MSU faculty researcher U.S. DOE early career award

Contact: Sarah Nicholas

Studio portrait of Kun Wang
Kun Wang (Photo by Beth Wynn)

STARKVILLE, Miss.—A new Mississippi State University faculty member is the recipient of $750,000 in funding from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Office of Science Early Career Research Program.

The early career awards are part of DOE’s longstanding efforts to support critical research at the nation’s universities and national labs, grow a skilled STEM workforce, and cement America as a global leader in science and innovation. The program, now in its 12th, supports scientists as they begin formative work in the agency’s priority research areas.

Kun Wang, an assistant professor with joint MSU appointments in the Department of Physics and Astronomy and the Department of Chemistry, is one of 51 university-employed scientists from the U.S. to receive DOE early career awards for “mission-critical” research.

“Maintaining our nation’s braintrust of world-class scientists and researchers is one of DOE’s top priorities—and that means we need to give them the resources they need to succeed early on in their careers,” said Secretary of Energy Jennifer M. Granholm. “These awardees show exceptional potential to help us tackle America’s toughest challenges and secure our economic competitiveness for decades to come.”

Wang’s project, “Probing and Understanding the Spatial and Energy Distributions of Plasmonic Hot Carriers via Single-Molecule Quantum Transport,” funded for five years, seeks to explore the new frontier of nanoscience and technology—a “challenge,” Wang said, because until now most research has relied only on theoretical simulations.

Mark A. Novotny, professor and head of the Department of Physics and Astronomy, said Wang’s work could enhance future technologies for smart devices and solar cells, making them more functional and energy efficient.

 “Watch an old movie from the 1940s—1960s, paying attention to phone technology. Now look at your smartphone, and think about the small and complicated electronics required for it to work. Dr. Wang’s research will experimentally study electronic and optical properties of single molecules, in particular the spatial and energy distributions associated with the electron transport within a molecule.”

Wang hopes his research “will transform the way we harvest solar energy, drive chemical reactions and detect light.” He plans to develop an experimental approach to systematically probe the energy and spatial distributions of plasmonic hot carriers and interrogate how they are affected by different external stimuli.

“What is really amazing about plasmonic hot carriers is they can make the impossible things possible—especially in many energy-related processes,” Wang said. “They can significantly lower the potential barrier for certain chemical reactions, making them much faster; they can improve the efficiency of solar-energy cells; and they can enable light-detection without the limitation of semiconductor bandgap.”

Dennis W. Smith Jr., professor and head of the Department of Chemistry, said, “While navigating the first joint appointment in chemistry and physics and astronomy, and in spite of the rigors of a first semester teaching and building a laboratory—and a pandemic—success and national recognition has arrived.

“This bold work represents the best chance I know to actually ‘create foundational knowledge,’ as Dr. Wang describes in his DOE abstract,” Smith said. “With fearless determination, he has designed single molecule circuit experiments and built an amazing custom zero vibration operating that has already given us the first images of atoms at MSU.” 

A native of China, Wang completed a postdoctoral research fellowship in mechanical engineering at the University of Michigan before joining MSU’s faculty in 2020. Wang received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Georgia and his bachelor’s degree in physics and microelectronics from Shandong University in Jinan, China.

Part of MSU’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Physics and Astronomy is available at www.physics.msstate.edu and the Department of Chemistry is available at www.chemistry.msstate.edu.

MSU is Mississippi’s leading university, available online at www.msstate.edu.