Feature Story | 4-Apr-2023

Xuan Zhang: Why spin gold when you can spin steel, and more?

Don’t leave her alone in a room full of straw. Principal materials scientist Xuan Zhang makes impressive use of quiet time

DOE/Argonne National Laboratory

Transforming what seems like nothing into something valuable is the magic of fairy tales. It’s also what Xuan Zhang, principal materials scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Argonne National Laboratory, did with more uninterrupted time during the COVID-19 pandemic. She helped Argonne establish its first onsite metal laser additive manufacturing lab, which provided 3D printing capabilities the lab didn’t have before.

With rare time to sit, think and plan in 2020, Zhang read extensively through literature about 3D printing, compared printer model options, examined data and reflected on her own considerable experience researching metals, such as 316 stainless steel.

“I am a person who likes to sit still,” admitted Zhang. ​“I enjoy the time when I sit by myself and think about scientific discovery, or when I go into the lab and work on experiments. When I am immersed in that feeling, it gives me a lot of satisfaction. You can call it happiness.”

That quiet and happy industriousness, exercised primarily from Zhang’s home during what others considered a ​“shutdown,” resulted in improved research and discovery capabilities at Argonne once lockdowns lifted and researchers were able to return to the lab. It also gave Zhang an unusual degree of experience in planning and ordering necessary equipment, collaborating with equipment and operation managers, setting up work control documents, establishing safety and efficiency procedures, and more.

“I enjoy the time when I sit by myself and think about scientific discovery, or when I go into the lab and work on experiments. When I am immersed in that feeling, it gives me a lot of satisfaction. You can call it happiness.” — Xuan Zhang, principal materials scientist 

“As a researcher, you don’t always have the chance to establish a lab. You work with already established capabilities,” Zhang said. ​“We had to establish a 3D printing lab from the ground up. Now I know, more or less, how to get a lab to a working state.”

Zhang has recently became the work package manager of a highly notable new capability at Argonne: the Activated Materials Laboratory (AML), a component of Argonne’s upgrade of the Advanced Photon Source (APS), a DOE Office of Science national user facility at Argonne.

Expected to be available to researchers in 2024, the AML will be a world-class radiological facility adjacent to the High-Energy X-ray Microscope beamline in the Long Beamline Building of the APS. The design, construction and operation of the AML is funded by DOE’s Office of Nuclear Energy’s Nuclear Science User Facilities (NSUF). It will have a number of scientific instruments dedicated for nuclear materials research.

Zhang’s current role at the AML is to communicate with Argonne leadership, the NSUF and DOE to establish workflows, funding mechanisms and all the required permits in preparation for general user access.

For Zhang, the new project draws on her experience in establishing a lab and also the traditional metallurgical research that drew her to Argonne in the first place. In fact, the other project she quietly completed during the pandemic was publication of research she conducted on neutron-irradiated 316 stainless steel at APS beamline 1-ID back in 2015.

At that time, Zhang and others were using the APS to conduct an in situ study of the microstructural evolution of neutrons-irradiated alloy samples under mechanical deformation. They tried to mimic conditions similar to what were inside a nuclear reactor.

“The nuclear environment is extreme and materials are expected to perform under stress and high temperatures for 60 years or longer,” explained Zhang. ​“Different types of coolants corrode the materials. Neutron irradiation adds another degree of challenge to material sustainability. All these factors simultaneously applied on these materials means there is a high requirement on the materials, which means there aren’t a lot of materials that can be used. We are trying to gain a fundamental understanding of the materials’ microstructure-property correlation with the high-energy synchrotron X-ray beams at the APS.”

Zhang observed an exciting moment when the sample displayed unexpected behavior compared to the unirradiated sample.

“I remember that moment,” she said, amazement still in her voice eight years later. ​“I was just sitting there observing the diffraction patterns as we deformed the neutron-irradiated sample when, all of a sudden, the thing looked really odd. Some of it looked deformed after what we had put it through, but some parts weren’t deformed at all. This was different from the unirradiated sample. Why was one part deformed and not the other when we loaded the sample as a whole?”

As it turned out, Zhang and her colleagues had captured the material’s unusual behavior in real time. The finding, published in Acta Materialia, opens the door to another level of material discovery.

Zhang discounts her seemingly effortless successes. Exceptional supervisors, genuine love of her work and a supportive home front are the only secrets to her success, she says. However, her real magic touch may lie in spinning more from something that seems like nothing but is probably everything: time.

The DOE Office of Nuclear Energy’s mission is to advance nuclear power to meet the nation’s energy, environmental and national security needs. For more information, visit the Office of Nuclear Energy website.

About the Advanced Photon Source

The U. S. Department of Energy Office of Science’s Advanced Photon Source (APS) at Argonne National Laboratory is one of the world’s most productive X-ray light source facilities. The APS provides high-brightness X-ray beams to a diverse community of researchers in materials science, chemistry, condensed matter physics, the life and environmental sciences, and applied research. These X-rays are ideally suited for explorations of materials and biological structures; elemental distribution; chemical, magnetic, electronic states; and a wide range of technologically important engineering systems from batteries to fuel injector sprays, all of which are the foundations of our nation’s economic, technological, and physical well-being. Each year, more than 5,000 researchers use the APS to produce over 2,000 publications detailing impactful discoveries, and solve more vital biological protein structures than users of any other X-ray light source research facility. APS scientists and engineers innovate technology that is at the heart of advancing accelerator and light-source operations. This includes the insertion devices that produce extreme-brightness X-rays prized by researchers, lenses that focus the X-rays down to a few nanometers, instrumentation that maximizes the way the X-rays interact with samples being studied, and software that gathers and manages the massive quantity of data resulting from discovery research at the APS.

This research used resources of the Advanced Photon Source, a U.S. DOE Office of Science User Facility operated for the DOE Office of Science by Argonne National Laboratory under Contract No. DE-AC02-06CH11357.

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation’s first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America’s scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science.

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit https://​ener​gy​.gov/​s​c​ience.

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