Zhang Laboratory

The understanding of collective phenomena is one of the major intellectual challenges in many research fields. Conventional statistical methods have been successfully applied to describe systems at or near equilibrium, but they often fail to provide accurate predictions for systems and processes away from equilibrium, where time reversal symmetry and ergodicity are readily broken. Yet, patterns of amazing complexity spanning an immense range of hierarchical spatial and temporal scales - ubiquitous in the world around us - are formed from non-equilibrium conditions, such as turbulent flow, structure of the universe, social activities, and life itself. Research on such systems and processes may help identify the rule of randomness and recognize the role of correlated degrees of freedom in the organization and transport of energy and matter. Such quest for universality is motivated by a hope of identifying emergent principles governing non-equilibrium systems.

The research in our group involves both fundamental science and applications of the extreme/non-equilibrium properties of matter, with particular emphasis on liquids and soft matter. We synergistically combine theory-driven atomistic simulations and neutron and X-ray experiments. We strive to push the boundaries of scattering techniques and the statistical and quantum mechanical theory-driven computational methods that intimately connect to the experiments. The goal is to understand long timescale phenomena and rare events in matter and engineer them into transformative applications. Our current research can be roughly divided into three areas:

To date, how to characterize and control matter away from equilibrium remains a grand challenge. From the fundamental science perspective, research on non-equilibrium matter may shed light on a class of scientific problems involving phenomena emerging from self-organization, symmetry breaking, and rare events, such as viscous flow of supercooled liquids and glasses, nucleation and crystal growth, folding of polypeptide chains into structured proteins, and self-assembly of micro-units into functional objects. From the application perspective, research on non-equilibrium matter may yield transformative knowledge that directly influence countless pivotal applications in nuclear industry and beyond, such as understanding and preventing the aging and degradation of materials, bio-preservation by kinetically blocking the transition pathways, design and manufacture of novel amorphous materials with otherwise unattainable properties, and control of non-equilibrium processing techniques, as part of an overarching mission of fostering secure and reliable energy infrastructures that are environmentally and economically sustainable.