Chunhua Yao Co-Inventor of a New Nanogenerator
Chunhua Yao grew up in a very small town in China in the Jiangxi Province. It’s been an exciting road for her to now be a PhD student in Material Science and Engineering at University of Wisconsin in Madison, an inventor of a new environmentally-friendly energy-harvesting device, and now a woman entrepreneur who has started a company with a partner. Last year, she founded EWPanel LLC along with her research advisor, a professor that she’s been working with at the university. Over the last four years, she’s done extensive research on nanogenerators and they’ve come up with a nanogenerator that is environmentally friendly and will be finding applications for the nanogenerator to help make the world a more sustainable place. When she joined the department, she knew that her lab would be focused on nanogenerator research, and now she’s an entrepreneur and small business owner!
Chunhua, can you tell me a bit about your background?
Well, my undergraduate work was in wood science, so I already had quite a bit of knowledge about environmentally-friendly materials and green chemistry. I think these are very good combinations because the nanogenerator is environmentally friendly and the material is also environmentally friendly.
What is a nanogenerator?
A generator is something that generates electricity. So, in everyday life, we have big generators to provide energy for what we do all day. Our nanogenerator is very small, and it has many nanometer features within, so we call it is called a nanogenerator. It can convert your movement into electricity. This kind of device was developed in 2012 by some other researchers in the field, but we are the first to use cellulose, an environmentally-friendly material, to create this kind of device. Usually, most of the materials are not eco-friendly – they use, for example, petroleum-based polymers, or some other materials that are not biodegradable. Well, we use cellulose material, but in order to use it, we need to implement some chemical reactions on it to make it have good electron-withdrawing or electron-donating ability.
The material is like a very flexible Scotch tape that can be used for everything because it is flexible. What we are trying to do is to take advantage of this material and create a viable commercial product out of it. When you touch it, electricity is generated, but we want to find applications for it where it can be embedded into some electronics and then can be used to really power something. We have the power but we need to find an application for this power. The hope is, when I finish my school, I can work full-time in my own company for this purpose. For our company, we applied for a Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant.
When will you find out about the funding from the SBIR?
Unfortunately, our last proposal wasn’t funded, but we will keep on writing proposals. It usually takes two or three tries because the submissions are so competitive. But, I’m very confident!
What is the product called?
We don’t have a name for now. Right now we just call it ”nanogenerator.”
Do you actually make it in your lab or do you have to send it away to another lab to make it?
We can make prototypes in our lab, but in the future will need to find a manufacturer for scaling up.
You said you need chemicals to make it work – are those chemicals also eco-friendly?
Yes, they are harmless chemicals and won’t affect the environment negatively.
You said that you have already studied green materials before you came to Madison. Can you tell me a little bit about your background and how you came to be interested in green materials?
I grew up in a very small town in China in the Jiangxi Province. I actually started out with the intention of going into another major, but it wasn’t available, so I just majored in wood science. My mom was a factory worker that manufactures cement and my dad was an electrician. When I was little, I would always follow him and look at how he worked on the circuits at home. I would pass him tools just to help him a little bit. I think, because of his profession, I fell in love with engineering. In China’s high schools, you need to decide if you are going into the STEM (Science, Technology, Education & Math) technologies before going to college. So because of my Dad, I liked engineering and decided to come to STEM.
Your Dad really had a lot of influence on you!
Yes, I wanted to be just like my dad, I pursued engineering and then majored in wood sciences in college. I really fell in love with the sciences. I had never heard of wood sciences before. In China, only 10 or 12 universities offer wood sciences as a major. It’s so useful though for everything in daily life, like building structures, furniture design; there are so many different kinds of wood. So, I went to a town that is only two hours drive away from my hometown for my college education in wood science.
Then, you wanted to get a master’s degree?
Yes, I was dreaming to be able to get a master’s degree. And, at the university, we had some collaborative work with USDA Forest Products Laboratory (FPL). And, that allowed me to come here to the FPL as a visiting student. When I was doing the work at FPL, I applied for the Materials Science Program here at UW-Madison and got accepted.
How was your English when you came to the United States?
We started learning English in middle school in China. We learned English just for all the tests for writing and reading, but we didn’t speak a lot.
Why is it important to develop green materials, do you think vs. materials that aren’t green or eco-friendly?
My major was in working with wood, so I just love wood. If I have a container, like a bowl for soup and it’s made of wood, I like it so much. I like all the patterns on wood; all the knots. Plus, I think it’s a great natural material. You can change the world when you use natural materials because the materials in the world are limited resources. It’s very important to use this recyclable and biodegradable material when you can.
Have you always wanted to be an entrepreneur?
Before 2016, I always thought I would become a professor, but I’m always open for different options. I like communicating with people. I like all kinds of different things! In 2016, my research advisor asked me if I was interested in starting a business and I said, I would be very excited if we can turn all our research results from the lab into a market-ready product! I would love that sense of achievement.
What do you see as the challenges you and your partner face about bringing this material onto the market?
For now, I think the biggest problem is that we have this technology which can be used to power different devices but we need to figure out what’s the best application. We need to solve a real problem for people, like, we can use it as a floor so that when you walk on it, the floor can generate electricity. But, this electricity is a very small amount, we can’t use it for the heating of the entire house, so we are now thinking of powering some low power electronics like the Fitbit or some other sensors.
What are your next steps?
So my plan is on the one side, to still work on the school as a Phd student. There, I’m doing more research and development to improve the efficiency of the nanogenerator, and then probably come up some device we can power with it. Then, on the other side, with the business, we’re trying to get a grant and also participate in some competitions just to let people know more about the product, find some potential customers, and ask for feedback to see what is needed in the market.
So, you have a busy path ahead!
Yes, very busy. I plan to stay here for at least 3 or 4 years after my graduation. I want to see how this business will go! It’s very exciting.