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Funding Provides Boost to Investigation of Nitrides

Aug. 1, 2019

Andriy Zakutayev will be following a roadmap he helped make as he embarks on a voyage to new discoveries.

Photo of Andriy Zakutayev

Andriy Zakutayev

The scientist at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has been awarded $2.5 million in funding from the Department of Energy’s Office of Science through the Early Career Research Program. The funds, awarded over five years, will enable Zakutayev to determine the accuracy of his and his colleagues’ theoretical predictions. He and other researchers published a paper earlier this year predicting the existence of hundreds of new nitride materials, and made a few of these nitrides that were predicted to be stable.

Nitride semiconductors have played an important role in certain technologies, such as light-emitting diodes and radio frequency transistors, but these materials aren’t found in nature. Instead, nitrides are formed when metallic elements are combined with nitrogen in a synthetic way.

“The results of this recently funded research can lead to discovery of new nitride materials for energy applications, such as new semiconductors for more efficient lighting, or better superconducting qubits for quantum computing,” Zakutayev said.

Zakutayev’s research plan aims to understand how to synthesize new metastable nitrides via chemical methods, instead of a more energy-intensive process that use high pressure and high temperatures. His research project is titled “Kinetic Synthesis of Metastable Nitrides.” Metastable materials will change over time – taking millions of years in some cases like diamond. But focusing research efforts solely on stable nitride materials leaves a vast research area unexplored. The recently published paper predicted the existence of about 200 new stable ternary metal nitrides, bringing the total number to just over 400. By comparison, the number of predicted metastable nitrides alone was 417.

Zakutayev proposes a couple of unique methods to synthesize metastable nitrides. One method involves arranging atoms into a desired crystalline structure, first combining unwanted elements and then swapping those for the elements he does want.

“To use an analogy from mountaineering, it’s like climbing a difficult mountain by first summing another one that may be taller but easier than the desired one, and then taking a downhill trail from there,” he said.

The other method involves mixing elements on the atomic scale and then crystalizing them into the desired structure.

The methods Zakutayev intends to use won’t be easy, even so he remains enthusiastic about the road ahead of him: “It will take a lot of hard work, but I think the results will be exciting” he said. This is consistent with the vision of the Early Career Research Program.

The Early Career Research Program is open to scientists who earned a doctorate within the previous 10 years. Zakutayev, who received Ph.D. in physics from Oregon State University in 2010, joined NREL that year as a postdoctoral researcher and became a staff scientist in 2012. This year, two other scientists from NREL were accepted into the Early Career Research Program: Davinia Salvachúa Rodriguez and Cara Lubner.

“I am very happy to receive this prestigious award,” Zakutayev said. “It is a big honor to me, and I am excited for research it would enable.”