Hello Mr. President2014-01-06
Dr. Yongfeng Lu’s spiritual home is the international laser community. Here, he talks about everything except his presidency of the Laser Institute of America.
You’ve traveled around the world. Is there an international laser community in your opinion?
Yes, and I believe globalization of the industry is growing the community. This shared identity is evident at conferences. Conferences reflect the world in terms of trends, integration and globalization. We cannot work alone. We must extend our community to overlap with and learn from the larger technology world. We communicate in the languages of different countries, but as laser professionals, we all speak the same technical language.
You learned this technical language first in your native country, China, and then in Japan. How did that happen?
There was an exchange program between the Chinese and Japanese governments and I thought it would be a good experience. I was a big fan of Japanese movies in 70s and 80s — they made quite an impression on me. I identified with the transition from traditional to modern society shown in Japanese movies. That sense of familiarity gave me the confidence to move to Japan.
Did you experience a culture shock?
At that time the Japanese economy was very strong. In China, lasers weren’t yet popular as a high-tech product. University labs could only afford a few lasers, operated by specialized technicians. In Japan, even students could use lasers and other high-tech equipment. I was shocked to see how much more efficient and advanced the technology was in Japan.
Were there many students going from China to Japan at that time?
No, I think the language barrier kept Chinese students from going to Japan. Before I left, I trained in Dalian, China, for nine months as part of an intensive Japanese language study. I worked hard — from six in the morning until midnight. By the end, I could communicate and read textbooks in Japanese. It was really an amazing program, very effective.
What changed you more? Going from China to Japan or from Japan to the U.S.?
Don’t forget the time in between, which I spent in Singapore, and which influenced me a lot. Research and industry are closely linked in Singapore, which is very manufacturing based. As a professor, I worked with companies involved with laser applications for the electronics and computer industries and developed a customer service approach to research.
We were encouraged always to understand the market needs and industry requirements. Before that, my first experience abroad in Japan made me feel like I was finally part of the world rather than in a corner of it. It def-initely made me more open-minded, but actually, I’d say coming to the U.S. after my time in Japan and Singapore was the biggest turning point. Japanese society was very homogeneous.
As a foreigner who didn’t grow up in the culture, it was difficult to know how to fit into everyday life. American society is more open, diverse and tolerant. The exchange of information and ideas is easier here. You can be your own person.
People around the world dream of California or New York and the New England States. But you settled in Nebraska.
Nebraska is a great place to work and live. I came here because of my interest in the work of a professor who I had met and who specialized in nanotechnology and lasers at the University of Nebraska.
Soon, I really appreciated how straightforward, friendly and easy to work with the people are. And it may seem insignificant, but I really love having a house and mowing the lawn. I enjoy the American lifestyle and spending time with my wife and two children. They’ve traveled with me around the world, but are now 100 percent Nebraskan.
Nevertheless, do you miss anything about China?
I still maintain ties to my native country. It’s easy for me to communicate with people in China and they’re doing a lot of research and development. I work with Chinese universities and bring students here to study.
How does their experience differ from yours?
When I studied in China, we learned mostly from textbooks, but could explore what we liked. In Japan, the lab was very well structured, with a clear research direction to follow. The research atmosphere in China has now become similar to U.S. in terms of being end-driven.
Research is very competitive here. It’s good real-world experience and American students transition easily after graduation. The drawback is that they don’t have the time to experiment with what they like. If we had the luxury to explore our own ideas, we might develop some different or surprising results.
Right now, you are working on diamond coatings.
Yes, that is a catchy way to put it. Our lab produces nanostructured carbon materials: diamond, graphene, carbon nanotubes, and carbon nano-onions. There are many practical applications for nanomaterials.
We use lasers to apply diamond coating to surfaces, for example, to improve thermal and wearing performance. We are cultivating nano-onions for use as an engine oil additive that im-proves the engine life and fuel efficiency of cars. We’re also using lasers for nanofabrication and optical spectroscopy for material analysis.
In one revolutionary application, we can use lasers to show differences in chemical makeup and, for example, help distinguish normal cells from cancerous cells.
What makes lasers a good fit for your work?
Lasers give us flexibility for a wide range of applications. For example, we use different wavelengths and laser powers to realize conditions needed to control nanomaterials. Lasers are better at controlling nanotube growth than chemical reactions, which many researchers use.
Our goal is to use lasers to improve the culture and location of nano-tubes so we can integrate them into circuits and devices. I really like lasers’ ability to create energy beams under ordinary atmospheric conditions, which makes the beams easier to manipulate when compared with ion and electron beams which demand a vacuum.
What effect do you hope your work will have on the world?
My goal is to make producing nano-structures easier, more cost-effective, and feasible for a wider audience without access to special, expensive equipment. I’d also really like to be remembered for my efforts to increase international collaboration and technology integration. My hope is that countries can learn from one another to make their research more effective. That would make me very happy.
Dr. Yongfeng Lu
Phone: +1 402 472 – 8323