Nanotechnology at Northwestern

Meet Han Fu, a graduate student in the Gray Research Group

By Mark Heiden

August 20, 2021

Han Fu is a graduate student in the Gray Research Group, which conducts both fundamental and applied research in the broad areas of environmental catalysis and physicochemical processes in natural and engineered environmental systems, with particular focus on energy and sustainability applications.

Han Fu

Where are you originally from?

I spend my entire childhood in Hangzhou, China, and immigrated to the U.S. with my family at 17 when I was in high school.

Where did you complete your undergraduate degree?

I completed my undergraduate degree at the University of California Berkeley, majoring in chemical engineering.

When did you first become interested in civil and environmental engineering?

Before studying at Northwestern, I worked as a process engineer at a pharmaceutical company for six years.  As a field engineer, I participated in the manufacturing process, from beginning (raw material purchasing) to end (waste separation and disposal). At a pharmaceutical company, although 20-30% of the manufacturing cost is spent on waste separation or treatment, little attention is given to this task.

The same situation happens in  other chemical industries: compared to the rapid development of innovative chemicals and products, people are less concerned about the possible environmental hazards those new chemicals may cause.

My experience in the pharmaceutical field excited my curiosity to rethink product development in the chemical industry from another perspective: how to control and eliminate, or even prevent, the related environmental risks, which led me to the area of environmental engineering and the research project I am working on now.

How do you explain what you study to non-scientists?

I always say that I am developing a new “patch” for traditional water treatment technologies.

Daily, thousands of anthropogenic materials are synthesized, utilized, and discharged from industrial, commercial, and residential areas. Those materials can be detected at a traceable level (nanogram to microgram per liter — thus, called “micropollutants”) in our surface water, groundwater, and drinking water systems, and they pose a potential threat to our health.  For instance, many micropollutants are endocrine-disrupting chemicals and also are implicated in developmental (teratogenic) or fertility problems.

Unfortunately, traditional water and wastewater technologies — which were developed a century ago — can only reduce some of the micropollutants. Those technologies cannot remove them completely. Therefore, we need a new “patch” tailored for these micropollutants.

Recently, you’ve been working on 3D functionalized graphene balls for micropollutants. What inspired you to focus on that? What do you hope to achieve with your research?

My research interest is the applications of engineered nanomaterials in water treatment and other environmental remediations. We have explored a variety of nano- and micro-sized materials for their possible environmental applications.

Among them, we noticed that Dr. Jiaxing Huang’s team in Northwestern’s Material Science & Engineering department has synthesized a 3D crumpled graphene ball (CGB) that is aggregation-resistant and exhibits excellent electrical, optical, and mechanical properties, yet its environmental applications have not to be explored. It has been our good fortune that Dr. Huang is also very interested in exploring a new application direction for CGB.

Thanks to his generous support and valuable advice, we have worked together to submit a couple of manuscripts recently, reporting the robust adsorption and photodegradation performance of CGB and its composites to remove micropollutants with various environmental conditions — such as the presence of natural organic materials, pH, ionic strength, water hardness, and alkalinity.

The goal of our project will be the application of CGB in a real water environment, such as drinking water or greywater, which is domestic wastewater generated in households. So far, we have conducted all the experiments at the laboratory level. Eventually, we would like to establish a portable device with the stable performance of CGBs and its composites to remove micropollutants in a real water environment.

What has been a highlight of your time at Northwestern?

The first half of 2021 needs to be highlighted. Due to the COVID pandemic, 2020-21 was difficult for all academic activities, but thanks to my mentor, Dr. Gray, and many other scientists and experienced technicians at Northwestern, I was still able to perform experiments regularly in the laboratory, while strictly following the hygiene rules.

I have been managing several projects in parallel, one of which is related to SARS-CoV2. In collaboration with researchers at Tel Aviv University, we are investigating the use of photocatalytic films to inactivate viruses. As of July 1st, 2021, we have submitted three manuscripts and two invention disclosures on our work.  In the spring, I gave 2 presentations at international conferences.

It has been a very productive year for me so far.

What has been the most challenging aspect of your work or your time at Northwestern?

The most challenging aspect of my research is that unexpected circumstances can happen at any time and anywhere.  Those unexpected circumstances primarily come from technical difficulties, since my projects involve material synthesis and characterization and hence, many different analytical instruments. Sometimes those unexpected circumstances may damage the sample, which costs a week of laboratory work.

But from another perspective, as a former field engineer,  I am familiar with the troubleshooting process and the eureka moment — when the technical issue is solved — is always enjoyable.

Can you tell me about your experiences either being mentored or mentoring others?

I am fortunate that my mentor, Dr. Kimberly Gray, gives me lots of freedom and fully supports me to explore new ideas and directions in my research.  She is always available to discuss experimental results with me and provide valuable suggestions for the next steps, even when she is busy with other issues.

I have mentored a couple of students and colleagues during my academic and industrial career. Mentorship in science is not only about science, but also includes the communication between mentor and mentee. It is always necessary to ensure both the mentor and mentee are comfortable during the mentorship.

Before the mentorship starts, I always discuss a couple of questions with the students, such as i.) what are your objective(s) during the mentorship; ii.) do you prefer to work independently or with a partner in the laboratory; iii.) how frequently do you want to meet to discuss your experiment results.

More communication is usually better, especially at the beginning of a mentoring relationship.

What are your hobbies outside of the lab?

 Outside of the lab, I love reviewing/editing Wikipedia (both scientific and non-scientific terms), playing video games, reading Chinese/Japanese classical novels, and working out in the gym (so glad to learn Henry Crown is reopening after the pandemic).