Kang awarded $500,000 Packard grant for work with superconductorsUnder amber, UV-shielded lights in a basement laboratory in the Research Institutes, physicist Woowon Kang dons the mantle of an organic chemist. Kang, who was just awarded a fiveyear, $500,000 grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, is synthesizing multifaceted, needle-like black crystals of an organic superconductor.
Discovered just 10 years ago, organic (carbon-containing) superconductors may be the next great hope for a versatile superconductor -- a material with near-zero resistance to electrical conductivity -- that operates at temperatures near or above room temperature.
"There are huge combinations of materials that you can synthesize from organic compounds, and once we understand better how these superconductors work, we hope to be able to design better materials with higher transition temperatures," Kang said.
Kang's goal as a physicist is to find out what makes organic superconductors tick. He subjects his crystals to low-temperature, high-magnetic-field measurements of their electronic properties. Currently, the best organic superconductors don't start conducting until the temperature is below 30 degrees Kelvin, or 263 degrees Centigrade below room temperature. But despite the daunting temperature hurdles to be overcome to make these materials commercially viable, Kang is optimistic about the future of organic superconductors. "These materials have proven extraordinarily successful," he said.
Kang's other major area of research is in two-dimensional semiconductors. When subjected to a high magnetic field, the electrons in these materials undergo a phase transition. First, they move about randomly, like the atoms in a gas. Under higher and higher magnetic fields, the electrons exhibit liquid-like and then solid-like behavior. While the gas-like material conducts electricity very well, the "frozen" material has a very high resistance to electrical conduction. Kang hopes to understand these properties more fully.
Kang joined the University faculty in 1994 as Assistant Professor in Physics and the James Franck Institute. Before coming to Chicago, he was a postdoctoral member of the technical staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories. He received his B.S. in 1988 from UCLA and his Ph.D. in 1992 from Princeton.
The Packard Fellowship has been awarded annually since 1988 to 20 of the most promising science and engineering researchers at U.S. universities. It is the nation's largest nongovernmental program of unrestricted grants to young faculty members in science and engineering. The fellows are nominated by their university presidents and recommended by a committee of nationally recognized scientists and engineers.