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Yue Yuan, Weinberg Research Fellow, uses nature to create sustainable materials

Yue Yuan, Weinberg Distinguished Staff Fellow at ORNL, is researching ways to create new materials to help the environment. Credit: Genevieve Martin/ORNL, U.S. Dept. of Energy

Growing up in China, Yue Yuan stood beneath the world’s largest hydroelectric dam, built to harness the world’s third-longest river. Her father brought her to Three Gorges Dam every year as it was being constructed across the Yangtze River so she could witness its progress.

“Everyone in science classes was expected to be working in the hydropower field, just like our parents,” said Yuan, now an Alvin M. Weinberg Distinguished Staff Fellow at the Department of Energy’s Oak Ridge National Laboratory. “But I went a different direction. I chose textile engineering at first, and later, research.”

As a Weinberg Fellow, Yuan is focusing on biopolymers, macromolecules that can be synthesized from renewable resources such as plants, crustacean shells or microorganisms.

“Macromolecules are building blocks of biological systems. They assemble in nature based on the principles of biology for critical functions such as structural support, inert barriers or energy storage,” she said. “In materials science and engineering, these renewable molecules with nanoscale features can be remade into functional materials based on chemistry.”

Production of bioderived materials often requires high consumption of energy and chemicals, and material qualities are inconsistent, limiting their large-scale application. Yuan’s work helps to develop greener and more controlled approaches for synthesizing biopolymers. By working on characterization methods, she clarifies how bioderived materials can be processed using additive manufacturing and other emerging applications.

“Nature’s design is great, but may not be robust,” Yuan said. “How can we take those molecules out of nature, learn from them, but make them better? We want to figure out the science behind the phenomena to provide engineers scientific evidence to systematically improve the material processing and properties.”

Without fundamental understanding of biopolymers, a gap exists between demonstration and real application. “We are trying to make use of molecules we harvest from nature or biowaste and make them more like a material that can be fabricated,” Yuan said. “My research can fill the gap between fundamental discovery in bioscience and applied science in manufacturing.”

As a staff research scientist and fellow working in the Macromolecular Nanomaterials group at ORNL’s Center for Nanophase Materials Sciences, she can build her biopolymer research on the group’s well-established synthetic polymer capabilities. Rigoberto Advincula, group leader, is her mentor.

Yuan’s path was atypical, forged in the shadow of the giant Chinese dam. Most people in her community were proud that they had produced such a world-renowned engineering feat, an infrastructure that uses nature to provide power for half of the country. But her mother, a history and political science teacher, exposed her to another point of view: What about the disruption of the ecosystem, relocation of people and destruction of wildlife habitats? Those concerns resonated with Yuan, so her college interest veered from engineering aimed at hydroelectricity to textile engineering. Human well-being and sustainability became rooted in her mind and shaped her vision.

Yuan received her undergraduate degree in apparel engineering in China. “I was interested in protective clothing, such as astronaut suits and firefighter suits. I wanted to pursue something that protects people in these harsh environments.” After a gap year backpacking in Southeast Asia and attending culinary school, Yuan realized she wanted to pursue scientific research.

She emigrated to the United States to conduct research at Kansas State University and its Nanotechnology Innovation Center. “I was amazed by the huge change of material properties when manipulating them at the nanoscale,” she said. A nanometer is a billionth of a meter — about 100,000 times thinner than a human hair. Yuan then shifted her focus to science, specifically polymer science and surface chemistry.

After earning a master’s degree in textile science at Kansas State in 2016, she went to North Carolina State University. Yuan earned a doctorate in fiber and polymer science and a graduate minor in biochemistry in 2021. Her journey from engineer to scientist was almost complete.

Yuan’s dissertation focused on challenges in global management of carbon dioxide emissions, specifically how a biocatalyst used with greener solvents could capture carbon. The research has applications in industry wastewater treatment as well. Her work introduced a new matrix made from chitin that traps an enzyme that speeds useful chemical reactions.

“Such a material could reduce the cost and energy of post-combustion carbon dioxide capture operations without needing to redesign solvent-based gas scrubbers in power plants,” she said.

After a short visit in 2018 to ORNL hosted by structural biologist Flora Meilleur, Yuan landed a graduate internship at the lab’s Center for Structural Molecular Biology in 2019. Under the mentorship of Hugh O’Neill, she led a project to introduce deuterium into biopolymers in a novel way. After the internship, she continued collaborating with scientists at three DOE Office of Science user facilities at ORNL — the Spallation Neutron Source, the High Flux Isotope Reactor and CNMS — to publish the findings.

After a short stint at RTI International Innovation Advisors, a nonprofit technical consulting group that she joined after receiving her doctorate in 2021, Yuan came to ORNL as a research fellow in 2022.

Her journey to scientist now complete, Yuan is pleased to be pulled into different collaborative research projects while conducting her own research. Now deeply ensconced in a research enterprise rich in resources and expertise, she can turn her attention to her nonresearch activities in her spare time for a balanced life. She is married with a young child, and she enjoys cooking and gardening. Yuan also is an advocate for mental health and managing stress.

You don’t always meet supportive people. Things can go wrong and pull you away from your goals. You must learn how to navigate and survive when the situation is bad,” Yuan said. “A flowing river, slow or fast, may change course, but nothing stops it from flowing.”

She cites the movie Forrest Gump as having a profound effect on her positive outlook. Watching it many times over a decade, she learned to keep running, learning, accepting things that happened to her. “That movie really encouraged me,” she said.

Yuan is passionate about STEM education and was a science communication fellow at Kansas State and North Carolina State. “I feel it is very important to expose kids, but not force them, to possibilities. Just like my parents showed me several directions, but they never told me which one was correct. I failed many times in my life. My path was not straightforward.”

For now, Yuan is looking forward to a long-term career at ORNL’s world-class CNMS facility to address big problems in sustainability. With that passion, she will not let any dams get in her way.

ORNL’s Distinguished Staff Fellowship program aims to cultivate future scientific leaders by providing dedicated mentors, world-leading scientific resources and enriching research opportunities. Fellowships are awarded to outstanding early-career scientists and engineers who demonstrate success within their academic, professional and technical areas. Fellowships are awarded for fundamental, experimental and computational sciences in a wide range of science areas.

UT-Battelle manages ORNL for DOE’s Office of Science, the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit Lawrence Bernard