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‘Serial inventor’ wins national award

Sandia National Laboratories materials scientist Hongyou Fan is the recipient of the Materials Research Society's Mid-Career Researcher's Award. He has more than 20 patents to his name. (Sandia National Laboratories)

Sandia National Laboratories materials scientist Hongyou Fan is the recipient of the Materials Research Society’s Mid-Career Researcher’s Award. He has more than 20 patents to his name. (Sandia National Laboratories)

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

Hongyou Fan has been called a “serial inventor.”

The materials scientist, who is a distinguished member of Sandia National Laboratories’ technical staff and a professor at the University of New Mexico, has more than 20 patents to his name.

He has developed products that can “selectively block” ultraviolet and infrared sunlight through windows, determine if a submarine is dropping to a dangerous depth, and one that mimics plants in converting sunlight into energy for solar cells.

And his work hasn’t gone unnoticed.

Fan is the sole recipient of this year’s Mid-Career Researcher Award from the Materials Research Society, the largest materials society in the United States. The distinction is given midway in a researcher’s career for exceptional achievements in materials research and for notable leadership in the field.

Fan is the first U.S. national lab researcher to win this award, which has been presented annually for the last seven years. Previous winners have been associated with Harvard University, Stanford University, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and other universities.

Considered a pioneer in his field, Fan was chosen for “outstanding contributions in nanoparticle self-assembly of functional nanomaterials.”

“This really is a recognition of Sandia’s accomplishments,” Fan said, giving credit to the students and collaborators who have been a part of his research teams.

“The collaborators and students are the real heroes for this award,” he said. “The students and collaborators really make our ideas come true. I conceive the ideas and then I guide them to do the work.”

Former Sandia postdoctoral researcher Kaifu Bian, whose work at Sandia was guided by Fan, has been awarded the society’s Postdoctoral Award “for advancing the understanding of nanoparticle assembles under stress.”

He is the first Sandia postdoctoral researcher to win the award.

“I think that shows the kind of leadership in materials research that we have at Sandia, and the mentoring that we do,” said Fan, who called mentoring “the most rewarding” part of his job.

Among the products he and his teams have worked on are optical coating products that could block various forms of sunlight for windows, glasses and windshields. The products can allow natural heating through a window during winter but block the heat during summer. The coating on the windshield can also block the glare from a vehicle traveling ahead.

And while all submarines carry depth sensors, his invention is low-cost, lightweight and highly sensitive.

Fan has also developed a product that can detect substances at airports that other sensors cannot detect. It is “as sensitive as a dog’s nose,” he said.

And the “photo-catalyst” he invented mimics photosynthesis in plants to convert sunlight into energy in solar cells.

Because of those accomplishments, the New Mexico Legislature this year honored him for his contributions in science and engineering. The lawmakers were the ones who called him a “serial inventor.”

Fan is a Materials Research Society and American Physical Society fellow. He has received the MRS Fred Kavli Distinguished Lectureship Award in Nanoscience, four R&D 100 Awards for the development of technically significant products, two Federal Laboratory Consortium Technology Transfer-Outstanding Technology Development Awards, the University of New Mexico Outstanding Faculty Mentor Award and the Asian American Engineer of the Year Award.

He received his doctorate in chemical engineering at UNM in 2000 after coming to New Mexico from his native China.

He came to the U.S. to explore broader research opportunities and became a U.S. citizen in 2006. He rapidly moved up through the ranks because of his talent from postdoctoral researcher to principal member of the technical staff to distinguished member of the technical staff.

His wife, Dongmei Ye, also works at Sandia Labs. His son Charlie, 17, attends Albuquerque Academy, with plans to attend Purdue. Daughter Cindy is a sixth grader at Academy.