In Dr. Y.T. Cheng’s first floor Anderson Tower office, shelves of books adorn nearly the entire length of two walls. They are books one would expect to find in a typical materials engineering professor’s office; books on physics, chemistry, mechanics, mathematics and, of course, materials science and engineering. So what is he reading at this moment?
“The Walter Isaacson biography of Steve Jobs,” he says. “While he wasn’t always likeable, one thing Jobs did very well was push his people beyond what they thought they could do. As a result, he enabled people to have confidence in themselves,” Dr. Cheng observes.
How important is confidence in one’s education and abilities for pursuing degrees and careers in a field like materials engineering? “Confidence is very important,” he contends. “Without self-confidence, people cannot discover and realize their own potential. My goal as a teacher is to help students develop basic skills and build self-confidence.”
Developing students is something Dr. Cheng has been working on since arriving at UK in 2008. His first two graduate students recently passed their Ph.D. exams, and both will continue their post-doctorate research at U.S. National Labs. In addition, Dr. Cheng was selected by undergraduate students as Materials Engineering Outstanding Teacher of the Year for 2012.
Not only is Dr. Cheng an exceptional professor, he has written over 150 publications and possesses 39 U.S. patents with more pending. Throughout his distinguished career comprised of over 20 years at General Motors and his current position as Frank J. Derbyshire Professor of Materials Science, he has honed and displayed an ability to engage in multidisciplinary research at the highest levels. Presently, he is involved in several projects in diverse fields throughout the College of Engineering.
Among his collaborative projects, Dr. Cheng is working with Dr. Haluk Karaca from the Department of Mechanical Engineering on a on a NASA-funded project involving shape memory surfaces. While Dr. Karaca is interested in high-temperature shape memory alloys, Dr. Cheng will focus on the aerodynamics of surfaces that can change shape and texture. “We could perhaps one day make a wing that doesn’t have to move but, rather, is controlled by changing the surface structure. I am interested in studying the aerodynamic properties—friction and drag—of such changes,” he explains.
Another project Dr. Cheng is undertaking, with Dr. David Puleo from the Center for Biomedical Engineering, explores the possibility of using magnesium alloys as biomedical implants. “Unlike titanium or steel implants, which must be left in the body or removed via another surgical operation, magnesium actually biodegrades; however, pure magnesium degrades too fast, so we’re developing magnesium alloys that could be used for such purposes.”
Dr. Cheng’s primary focus these days is on lithium ion batteries, a project funded by the National Science Foundation and General Motors. His group is working on new materials and structures that will increase the energy and power density, as well as the durability of batteries. In addition, Dr. Cheng is researching how to manufacture lithium ion batteries in a sustainable way as a faculty participant in the newly established Institute for Sustainable Manufacturing. He investigates questions such as, “How can we synthesize the material that goes into the battery in ways that utilize less energy and are recyclable?”
Dr. Cheng credits his ability to work collaboratively to his 20 year career at the General Motors Research & Development Center. “When I first started at GM, I didn’t expect to be there as long as I was; however, the variety of the work always kept me learning and growing. As a result, we discovered how to measure mechanical properties of materials at the micro- and nano-meter length scales, how to reduce friction and wear and investigated many other interesting problems.”
Looking ahead, Dr. Cheng sees a dynamic career path for his students, as opposed to the longevity he experienced at GM. “There have been so many changes to the way people approach work,” he says. “Students should probably not expect to stay in one job their whole career. Once they learn the basics and develop confidence, they become free to move around, learn and grow. The end result is an engineer who continues learning, enjoys life and contributes to a better society.”