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Mastering the Material

Kwang Kim, winner of the 2016 Harry Reid Silver State Research Award, designs substances that propel us into a cleaner, healthier future.

Research  |  Apr 10, 2017  |  By Raegen Pietrucha
Kwang Kim

Kwang Kim, NV Energy Professor of Energy and Matter in UNLV’s Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering. (R. Marsh Starks/UNLV Creative Services)

Editor's Note: 

Kwang Kim was one of three people to win an 2017 UNLV Top Tier Award, which honors employees for their outstanding contributions to UNLV and its mission to be a Top Tier university. 

The objects in Kwang Kim’s lab seem random to a layperson — gray rubbery flaps, white plastic pieces, misshapen scraps. But the NV Energy Professor of Energy and Matter in UNLV’s Howard R. Hughes College of Engineering knows just how all these materials make — and even sometimes break — our world.

Kim’s business is researching the substance of structures and energy systems, and without him, there’s much in the way of solutions, careers, and companies that may have never materialized.

As multifaceted as the materials he studies, Kim’s research accomplishments span a variety of seemingly disparate specialties. He’s invented a water-repelling substance that modifies the surface of steam-power plant condensers and, in the process, improves the rate of heat transfer by 200 percent in some environments. Instead of forming a steam film as they work, the condensers form droplets of condensation instead. This “dropwise condensation” process could someday move beyond its current application with condensers and reshape how entire power plants are built.

Kim is also investigating a novel composite material that could be leveraged in a battery system’s electrochemical cell. The device promises to reduce the maintenance associated with conventional batteries while expanding energy capacity and extending the battery system’s life cycle.

His most recent research calling: advancing the soft robotics field by creating artificial muscle from materials that can bend, twist, oscillate, and more. His work has the potential to help millions with health problems and disabilities.

Having dedicated more than 25 years in academia and the private sector to this work, perhaps it’s unsurprising that Kim has garnered UNLV’s most prestigious accolade, the 2016 Harry Reid Silver State Research Award, which recognizes a researcher whose work not only addresses real-world needs and advances the field but also contributes to Nevada’s growth and development. However, Kim — no stranger to recognition, as he is also Fellow of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers and the recipient of the 2015 Regents’ Researcher of the Year Award from the Nevada System of Higher Education, the 2016 Distinguished Barrick Scholar Award from the UNLV Executive Vice President and Provost’s Office, and several other honors — remains humble.

“This award is more than I deserve,” he said. “I’m just doing my job.”  

The Unlikely Engineer

Kim hadn’t initially set his sights on an engineering career. In fact, he hadn’t married himself to any particular path for most of his young adulthood, even when he was actively pursuing academic degrees. At his parents’ behest, Kim had applied for and was accepted to a school where he was to pursue medicine. At the last minute, he decided against going, and instead attended South Korea’s Yonsei University with his friend, who was interested in engineering. Kim wasn’t familiar with the subject. 

“I didn’t plan to become an engineer,” he said. “It just turned out that way.” (Incidentally, Kim’s friend didn’t end up an engineer, taking on an automotive business instead.)

Even as he finished his master’s in chemical engineering at Arizona State University, Kim wasn’t sure if he would continue his studies in the field. An interest in a faculty member’s projects kept him on for a PhD, and then Kim was off to the University of Maryland, College Park, for postdoctoral training.

“Even at that time, I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to do,” Kim admitted. “So I joined a small R&D company, Thermal Electric Devices Inc., with the hope that it would grow.”

Although Kim was enjoying studying metal hydrides there — compounds formed between metals and hydrogen, the likes of which are most commonly used in batteries — the idea of working for a larger company continued to call to him.

He moved on to Environmental Robots Inc., where he began investigating electroactive polymers — substances composed of large, complex molecules that change when electrically stimulated. There, Kim had his first taste of robotics work, collaborating with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (more commonly known as DARPA) on a project developing soft underwater robots. He also got the chance to work alongside the late French physicist and Nobel Prize laureate Pierre-Gilles de Gennes.

Although their time together was brief — only a few days — de Gennes continues to influence and inspire Kim, who kept a notebook they’d written research notes to each other in.

“I had been looking at physics in a very sophisticated manner at that point,” Kim said. “I was relatively young, and my PhD training instilled that in me. But de Gennes taught me how to sort out the few important factors from the complicated, to look at things in a more global and simplified manner. I was a late learner just doing things, but finally it started to click. That was a tipping point for me academically.”

Kim joined the University of Nevada, Reno, shortly thereafter to work alongside his PhD advisor and then-UNR professor and chair of mechanical engineering, Byard Wood. Kim became chair himself in 2007 and UNR Foundation Professor in 2011, a title he held until joining the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, in 2012.

“Both my children had moved on to college, so I’d started thinking to myself, ‘What am I going to do with this empty nest?’” Kim laughed. “I started looking at other schools, including UNLV, and when I talked to the president [then Neal Smatresk] and Engineering Dean Rama Venkat, I decided to come to Vegas and build my Active Materials and Smart Living Lab here. Now that I’m regular faculty, I have time to expand my program. I have a very energetic group of undergrads, grads, and postdocs; and I’m trying to keep them busy.”

The Endless Quest for Answers

There is certainly no shortage of work in Kim’s lab, which is a reflection of his diverse research interests as well as his myriad relationships in the public and private sectors.

“As an engineer, I don’t normally pick the project; I go talk to people and find out what their problems are,” Kim said. “In other words, I’m not trying to sell my ideas; I’m trying to solve their problems.” 

Take Kim’s dropwise condensation coating as an example. Kim had heard from the condenser industry for some time that steam was presenting a problem for steam-power plants. He wrote a proposal to the U.S. Department of Energy, which gave him roughly $68,000 in 2013 to develop a solution, which Kim then patented. In 2014, Boston-based venture company NBD Nanotechnologies licensed Kim’s technology and hired postdoctoral scholar Bong June Zhang, who’d worked on the coating with Kim. Kim wrote 30 technical papers on the subject.

And thanks to a $3.8 million grant received in 2015 from the National Science Foundation’s “Partnerships for International Research and Education” (PIRE) program, Kim, UNLV engineering professor and colleague Paul Oh, and several other researchers around the world are working to develop artificial muscle materials that can address a number of human health concerns and soft robotics-related problems. Conventional methods for dealing with catheters currently put patients at risk for damaged vessels, particularly when it comes to smaller passages in the neurovascular system. But Kim developed an artificial muscle micro-catheter with controllable features that could serve as a robotic biomedical platform in treating cardiovascular diseases, strokes, and more. Thus far, Kim’s artificial muscle research has generated three U.S. patents and 150 publications, including three books.

“Without any doubt, (Dr. Kim) has been one of the most productive and successful researchers at UNLV,” Venkat said. “His contributions to the science and engineering community have not only resulted in his recognition worldwide but have promoted the reputation of UNLV.”

Although solving complex research problems is difficult enough, Kim recognizes that his success has depended upon more than just his engineering background.

“You have to build relationships, because people won’t tell you their problems until they’re comfortable with you,” Kim said. This rule applies to the 120 research trainees — grad students, postdoctoral research fellows, visiting scholars, undergrads, professors — Kim has mentored thus far in his career, three of whom currently hold faculty positions nationally.

“Some of my former students are working for Apple now, some are in academia, and some of them I have to make appointments with to see them,” Kim said. “I don’t think I taught them, but I had the privilege of working with them. They still call me here and there. That’s what I enjoy the most.”

It also applies to his peers, who admire him greatly. And with 170 journal articles, more than 160 papers in conference proceedings, 15 book chapters, nine edited volumes, and three books to his name cited between 800-900 times a year, there’s certainly plenty to commend.

“Kim is an outstanding individual who has shown great leadership both nationally and internationally in the area of bio-inspired material design, a field with enormous potential to change many aspects of our lives,” said George Lauder, Henry Bryant Bigelow Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University.

And, of course, there’s the bunch of funding agencies and private partners that have taken notice of Kim’s research. As an academician, he has received $15.6 million in external support (more than $1.7 million annually since he joined UNLV in 2012) from the National Science Foundation, Tesla Motors, NASA, the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Department of Defense, and more. To say his contributions to his field — not to mention Nevada’s growth and development — are significant is a tremendous understatement.

“The types and variety of partnerships that Dr. Kim has been able to foster are evidence of his talent for building impactful relationships and for connecting the research endeavor to tangible outcomes that help our communities and further develop our economy,” said Carolyn Yucha, UNLV Acting Vice President for Research and Economic Development. “It’s impossible to calculate the value of his efforts, but they are of tremendous benefit to UNLV and beyond.”

The Future, Materializing One Project at a Time

With as massive and mind-boggling a record of accomplishments as his, it’s easy to wonder how Kim has achieved all he has. So, what’s his secret for success?

“I write everything down in my notebook and on my project board, and I go through the list. It’s organization. That’s it,” he said. “Also, I just keep trying. Rejections are natural. If you worry about failure, you care too much.”

On his list right now: 3-D-printing materials that mimic portions of mammals and fish whose purposes we don’t understand, such as a flying fish’s fin.   

“3-D printing technology has made really good progress recently,” Kim said. “It became a new tool for me that I can use to put together 3-D shapes of the active materials I’ve been developing. The only challenge is that the selection and usability of the materials are pretty limited, so I’ve been spending some time creating products in my lab that can be printable.”

Also on his list: developing materials that can be animated with chemical or thermal energy but controlled by electrical or other external fields — in other words, substances that will be able to operate as animal muscles do.

“Animal muscle is probably the best actuator we know of,” he said. “But how do we make it work? We eat, which is chemical energy, and some part is converted into energy that’s controlled by electricity — your brain. Eventually, I’d like to have a chemo-mechanical material I can control with electric, but I haven’t been able to find any materials yet.”

One more item on his agenda: Having happened to meet Reid, Kim was inspired by the award namesake’s health challenge, and being the type of researcher that he is, Kim couldn’t help but think of solutions that could come from materials science and engineering. (Note that Reid has no involvement in the award selection process and is the namesake only.)

“I met (Reid) a year or two ago,” Kim said. “He told me about his eye problem, and I told him I knew of a material that could be made in such a way that it could be embedded outside the eye.” Undergraduate researcher Michelle Quizon is currently working on the project, which her Honors thesis centers around.

“There’s so much we can improve with research,” Kim said. “And if I make a little progress, then someone who follows could take it to the next level, and we can change people’s lives for the better. Someday, we could make an artificial heart. Or we could make a dropwise condensation coating last longer, helping to save the environment. I can’t make all those things on my own, but I am part of the journey, and I’m proud of that.”

Learn more about Kim’s work on his YouTube channel.