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Immigrant Of The Week: Ting Xu

by Greg Siskind


Popular Science recently ran its 8th Annual Brilliant 10 list of the nation's most promising young scientists. And once again, several of them are immigrants helping to keep America in the forefront of innovation. Once is Ting Xu, a China native, who is transforming molecules into mini hard drives with massive storage capacity. Here's how Pop Sci describes her work:

Earlier this year she co-authored a paper describing a new technique for coaxing tiny polymer strands to self-assemble into 10 trillion cylinders with precise patterns. The method could lead to discs the size of a quarter that store 175 DVDs’—7 terabits—worth of data. Then she tweaked the technique so it could be used to build a range of nanoparticle-based devices—super-efficient photovoltaic cells and energy storage systems, and higher-resolution flexible displays. Xu is smart, diligent and knowledgeable, says polymer physicist Thomas Russell of the University of Massachusetts, but more important, “she has imagination.”

After reporting on the self-assembly method, which she created with Russell, Xu immediately saw greater potential. The strands, she realized, could serve as minuscule cranes to arrange even smaller building materials and manufacture things like ultrasmall electronic devices and paper-thin, printable solar cells. In her most recent work, Xu combined the self-assembling polymers with nanoscopic particles. By forcing these particles to assume the underlying order of the polymers, she managed to get trillions of them to line up exactly as she wanted.

Xu hopes the work will give solar cells a competitive advantage over fossil fuels, for one thing, but she won’t be resting in the meantime. She’s constantly hunting for new ideas and designing experiments with the hope of surprising herself, not just confirming existing theories. “It’s important to think about science in a perpendicular way, not a parallel way,” she says. “Otherwise you end up painting other people’s houses.