MatSE Assistant Professor Qian Chen Receives ACS PRF, CAREER Awards

“We’re using a novel direct imaging and quantitative analysis tool we developed in the last two years,” Chen said. “Asphaltenes are complex aromatic hydrocarbons in crude oil, whose aggregation deleteriously affects almost all aspects of petroleum utilizations, from oil transport (upstream sector) to oil refining (downstream sector). Our proposed research utilizes liquid-phase transmission electron microscopy, which can encapsulate a crude oil sample between two atom-thick graphene layers and enable direct ‘videotaping’ of the heterogenous aggregation process in real time at the unprecedented nanometer resolution. We will derive, from such new type of experimental data, fundamental understanding of the driving force and kinetics of asphaltene aggregation, and potentially predictive aggregation prevention in petroleum industry.” 

Materials Science and Engineering Assistant Professor Qian Chen
Materials Science and Engineering Assistant Professor Qian Chen

A full quantitative understanding of the physical laws behind asphaltene aggregation is to come from this exciting research — this understanding and the solutions to come from them are of high urgency to both petroleum science and industry. 

“Due to the deleterious effects of asphaltene aggregation, much cost has been spent in its reduction and removal as well as concomitant plugging of oil tubing, which amount to $ 1,200,000 per day,” Chen said.

“I am very happy to receive this award as it helps open a new direction in my group that is very complementary with others of our on-going efforts. For example, we have mostly used this imaging tool for inorganic materials but this support for extending it to the organic systems such as asphaltene will enable us to push the boundaries of the tool for the other class of materials that have their own generic challenges (more beam sensitive and lower contrast) and wide application relevance (generalizable to polymers, biomolecules).”


Qian Chen also recently received a National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award for her submitted proposal, “Imaging and Understanding the Kinetic Pathways in Shape-Anisotropic Nanoparticle Self-Assembly.”


The NSF’s Early Career Development Program’s CAREER awards are prestigious, competitive awards given to young faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholar through outstanding research, excellent education, and the integration of education and research. The program will provide five years of support for each award.

“This award is timely,” Chen said,  “because it supports our proposed research that address challenges in an emerging theme in materials science: to understand and design artificial materials exhibiting the features of living organisms with adaptive and evolving functional behaviors. These materials are composed of nanosized building blocks which can dynamically change their shapes, organize and reorganize. They contrast from the more traditional ‘static’ materials with nonchanging structures and functions, and promise new solutions to growing needs for renewable energy and human health.”

This research intends to guide Chen’s group in deciphering the rules upon which nanometer-sized building blocks can organize into materials that can reconfigure.

“Examples can include patterned ultra-small antennas that modulate local electromagnetic field strengths upon different sun positions, or automotive "skins" that optimize the aerodynamics of vehicles in varying environments,” Chen said. “In addition, the rules can also be applied to other systems composed of tiny elementary objects such as biological molecules which are critical for human health, or to create new materials that can achieve cheap and clean renewable energy.  The key enabling innovations of this project are two-fold. First, a novel imaging tool will be used to trace and videotape the building block motions on the fly at up to atomic resolution. Second, the obtained motions will be analyzed to interpret the crosstalk among these building blocks.”

“The completion of this project will give me a start towards achieving my long-term career goal: to discover, understand, and implement the rules needed to make nanoscale artificial materials exhibit functional features of living systems (e.g. adaptive and evolving, not static matter),” Chen said. 

In addition to the research, the CAREER award includes funding for a “tri-M” lab — including Modular lab demos, a Mobile game app, and Movies is utilized as a platform for broad dissemination to the general public. 

“These efforts will initiate broad interactions to achieve my education goal: to promote societal understanding of science and scientific careers, and, as a female engineering faculty myself, to encourage women and minorities to pursue scientific careers,” Chen said. “Modular lab demos will consist of simple but visually appealing, highly tactile experiments in which important self-assembly concepts are articulated in a way that involves music and commonplace objects, which will permit not just engagement and intuition development, but also future inquiry. Going beyond demos, the Mobile game app we will call ‘Game of Blocks’ will allow even more exploration, enabling students to personalize parameters in assembly and to construct beautiful structures.”

Chen continued, “The Movies represent the ‘seeing is believing’ aspect of my proposed research, which will produce many nanoparticle assembly videos. We will select particularly striking ones to share on our group Youtube channel with narration. Through this Youtube channel, we will interact with viewers and invite enthusiasts, especially those with young children in the family, to visit our lab and watch our experiments.”

To learn more about the ACS PRF, visit:

To learn more about this NSF CAREER Award, visit: