Prof Liqiang Mai | Leading a World Class Materials Science Institute at Wuhan University of Technology

  • Please tell us briefly about your personal and professional background.

My name is Liqiang Mai. I am the dean of School of Materials Science and Engineering at Wuhan University of Technology (WUT). My research interests focus mainly on new nanomaterials for electrochemical energy storage and micro/nano energy devices. I received my Ph.D. degree from WUT in 2004 and then did my postdoctoral at the Georgia Institute of Technology.  During 2008-2011 I worked as Advanced Research Scholar at Harvard University and afterward got the opportunity to work at the University of California, Berkeley from 2016 to 2017.

  • Please tell us briefly about your personal and professional background. What are the turning points, or we can say defining moments in the journey of your life and career?

The turning point of my career was the research work of design and assembly of single nanowire electrochemical devices. During my study abroad at Harvard University, I designed and assembled a single nanowire electrochemical device to probe the capacity fading problem, and studied the capacity fading mechanism of the battery in a real-time. This idea was not proposed by anyone at that time, which also means that whether this idea is correct or not remained to be verified by us. At that time, there were almost no reference materials or models for this method, and we explored everything from scratch. This was also the most challenging problem I have ever encountered. But in order to prove that this idea is feasible, we have repeatedly modified the experimental plan, constantly overturning one plan after another. Finally, the world’s first single nanowire solid-state energy storage device was successfully constructed, and the essential law of capacity decay of electrode materials was obtained. In 2019, this achievement won the Second Prize from the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and has been cited, confirmed, and widely used by many well-known scientific research institutions at domestic and foreign situations.

  • Please introduce us about the WUT and its Materials Science department?

Wuhan University of Technology is a state-key university directly affiliated with the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. WUT is among the first batch of universities that have entered the national “211 Project” and China’s “Double-First Class” Initiative. It is worth mentioning here about “211 Project” and China’s “Double-First Class” Initiative. The Double-First Class university plan was developed by the Chinese government in 2015 to strengthen the Chinese university system with global reach and impact, similarly,  “211 Project” was initiated by China’s Ministry of Education in 1995 with the same aim of strengthening key Chinese government universities and colleges. Besides the part of 211 Project” and China’s “Double-First Class”, WUT has been listed in Times Higher Education World University Rankings, U.S. News Best Global Universities Rankings, Shanghai Jiao Tong University’s Academic Ranking of World Universities, and QS Asia University Rankings since 2019.

The Discipline of Materials Science and Engineering of WUT was founded in 1958. In the fourth round of the National Discipline Assessment under the Ministry of Education, WUT’s Discipline of Materials Science and Engineering is rated as “A+”, tied with Tsinghua and Beihang University, and entered the top 1‰ of the world’s ESI discipline rankings. We have 260 faculty members and 80 staffs in the field of MSE. We have one Academician from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, three Academicians from the Chinese Academy of Engineering. We have more than 25 hundred undergraduate students and 22 hundred graduate students. In the past ten years, our total research funding is 1.5 billion RMB, and we have received 17 national science and technology awards ranking 1st in the MSE field of China.

You have also established International Materials Science School at WUT. What are its objectives?

The International School of Materials Science and Engineering (ISMSE) was founded on 30 December 2015 under the authorization and guidance of NICE (Network of International Centers for Education) strategies. NICE was launched by the State Administration of Foreign Experts Affairs and the Ministry of Education of P.R.C. in 2014 with an aim to create education models that conform to both international conventions and Chinese characteristics. NICE has authorized 16 universities to build International Schools since 2014. Currently, WUT is the university that has been authorized to build an international school of “Materials Science and Engineering”.

ISMSE of WUT aims to build top-notch innovative talents, training-based as well as knowledge innovation-based, which could have valuable influence and inspirational demonstration role in the international materials field. Our objective is to build a more open and interdisciplinary teaching system centered on students and to establish a more diversified and individualized talent training model. For this purpose, the ISMSE has established 21 collaborative mentoring teams headed by academicians and chair professors to formulate top-level innovative talent training programs that intersect with materials and energy environment, information interconnection, intelligent manufacturing, transportation and infrastructure, and health. The department has launched many high-level international academic forums, such as Distinguished Scholars Forum and International Vision Forum. And at ISMSE we also cooperate with internationally renowned universities like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to establish overseas exchange platforms to speed up the collaboration training among universities all over the world to cultivate top-notch innovative talents.

Nobel laureate Jean-Marie Lehn visits school of materials science at WUT
  • WUT is one of the top Materials Science departments in China. What is the reason behind its success?

Today’s achievements of the material science department of WUT are much the result of the strategic layout of several generations of school leaders.  The former President of WUT, Academician Qingjie Zhang, took the development of the material science discipline as his top priority since his appointment. He employed the strength of the whole university to actively build the material science discipline to achieve new heights in research and academia. As a result of his efforts, during the second year of his presidency, the State Key Laboratory of Silicate Materials for Architectures was approved. WUT became one of the few universities with two national key laboratories for materials. In addition, talent development is significantly important for Academician Qingjie Zhang,  so, he greatly focused on the development of talents in material science.  He introduced internationally renowned materials scientists like Baolian Su to nurture the scientific research direction of the discipline in keeping with the international frontier. During this period, the selection of academicians was excellent. Three professors, Lianmeng Zhang, Qingjie Zhang, and Zhengyi Fu were successively elected as academicians of the two academies. We have several strong academician successors having honorable national awards at the Materials Science Department of WUT and the department has succeeded in producing passionate young talents.

  • What are the areas of research in WUT Materials Science department?

Our research area includes inorganic non-metallic materials engineering, composite materials and engineering, materials forming and control engineering, polymer materials and engineering, materials physics and chemistry, and new energy materials and devices.

  • You have built a strong academia-industry links at WUT, how did you achieve that? What are the benefits?

Our talent cultivation is oriented towards the transformation and upgrading of the basic materials industry and the development of strategic emerging industries and regional economies. The MSE reform in WUT has taken four forms of collaboration: the collaboration between research and teaching, collaboration with industry, collaboration with regional resources, and international collaboration.

The second form of reform is to promote collaboration with the industry for talent cultivation. For this purpose, WUT established a Council composed of 218 high-profile companies from the building materials industry, transportation industry, and automobile industry. We hold regular meetings to discuss the talent training programs.

From the perspective of talent, the task of academia is to cultivate talent, while the industry harvests talent and uses human capital to create new products. The organic combination of academia and industry can produce synergistic effects, technological spillovers, and other advantageous effects that are beneficial to technological progress and social development.

  • What is the current Materials science landscape and the future of Materials Science in China?

In China, there are four basic types of materials namely building materials, steel, composite materials, and polymers which are the foundation of our national development. Their output accounts for around 16% of the GDP of the materials industry. And China produces most of the steel, cement, glasses in the world.  The future development of China will have higher demands for new materials. Sustainability, nanotechnology, and responsive materials are the key development direction of materials science in China.

Main reserach areas of Prof Mai’s group at WUT
  • What role materials science can play in the development of a developing country like Pakistan?

In many developing countries, such as China and Pakistan, industries are facing fundamental changes. As one of the basic disciplines, material science plays a fundamental role in the development and transformation of various industries. From the perspective of national development, the research and development of national high-tech, the development of new energy, the treatment of environmental problems, etc. all require technical support from material science. From the perspective of social life, people’s daily necessities of life, as well as various medical devices that are closely related to people’s health, cannot be separated from the support of material science. Therefore, the development of material science is conducive to the development of national defense and national economy, thereby helping developing countries to make more progress economically and militarily.

  • How we can improve academic linkages between Pakistan and China. You recently participated in Pak-China Youth Forum. What is your take?

We can increase short-term and long-term visiting exchange programs with Pakistan universities. In addition, We can organize international academic exchange conferences, forums and lectures, and invite experts and scholars from the two countries to conduct academic exchanges.

  • Any message/suggestions for Pakistan students and postdocs who want to study and work at WUT Materials Science Department?

The door of WUT Materials Science Department will always be open to Pakistan students and postdocs. We are committed to supporting you throughout your entire research journey, to inspire and nurture you to do the research you want to do. Our brilliant students make WUT what it is – a research powerhouse, a multidisciplinary community, and a place where ideas matter. We want you to bring your ideas and your enthusiasm for your chosen discipline. Your supervisor is here to get the best out of you. They will offer advice and work with you to identify the training and development you need to achieve your goals. You will be able to benefit from their research expertise and gain new perspectives from your innovative research. We also sincerely hope that you can experience a special Chinese culture while exchanging academics. At the same time, we also hope that you can bring us a rich and special Pakistani culture. Overall, welcome to WUT Materials Science and Engineering!

  • What excites you about energy research? Why materials science, nanomaterials, and energy storage systems are important research areas to you? What has actually led you towards this?

There are two main things that excite me about energy research. One is my interest and enthusiasm for this field. I love my job and my research. So I work with passion every day. The other thing is my sense of responsibility for the energy development of my country and even the world. Since I was a child, I have been blessed by my country, my alma mater, and my family. After I completed my postdoc research in the United States, I felt that I should go back to China to develop and contribute my own strength to China’s development. At that time, there was indeed a big gap between the domestic new energy technology level and foreign countries. For example, in 2010, the coverage rate of new energy vehicles in our country was relatively low, and it could only be promoted in big urban cities such as Beijing, Shanghai, and Chongqing. Moreover, there was a lack of advanced technology in related fields at that time, so, the core technology was controlled by other countries, which was the major impediment to new energy development in China. Adhering to this belief, I have been unremittingly overcoming difficulties in this field, hoping to design and develop new energy devices with better performance, and to promote the development of energy in my country and even in the world.

Prof Liqiang mai with his team members at WUT
  •  How do you see or assess the future of nanoscience for solving, particularly, energy storage problems?

The main drivers for research in battery technology are to find suitable electrode materials with as high surface area as possible. As the higher surface area allows rapid charge transport resulting in higher capacity and longer charge/discharge cycles.

The safety of batteries is also an important concern. Liquid organic electrolytes, which are prevalent in Li-ion batteries, can combust or even explode when the battery is overheated. Currently, safety measures are required to prevent this from happening which are taking space inside the battery, increasing its size, and adding cost and complexity to the manufacturing process. These issues are being solved by nanotechnology research. Nanostructured materials increase the surface area of electrolyte materials, and nanoparticles could enhance the conductivity of solid ceramics or gels to allow them to replace liquid electrolytes, thus, reducing the chance of a short circuit.

Much of the research on nano-enhanced batteries in the coming few years will focus on reducing the cost of these nanomaterials, making them viable for large-scale commercial applications. The use of nanotechnology to enhance device performance by increasing energy storage density has also led to small, light, and flexible rechargeable batteries for practical application. Some thin-film batteries are already available, but these have limited performance and are relatively expensive. The advent of nano-based research and technology has improved the energy and power density, cyclability, and safety of modern batteries.

  • What you like to do when you aren’t working on research?

I like sports. For me, exercise not only strengthen the body but also release stress. Table tennis is my favorite sport. I shall say, I have to take a ping-pong bat with me when I am on a business trip. As long as I have time, even for half an hour, I would like to play table tennis for a while.

  • Over the past decade several researchers are reporting sustainable methods for materials synthesis, green synthesis methods, development of sustainable energy storage systems. How do you accept green or sustainable methods in nanoscience?

Nanomaterials exhibit unexpected properties compared to their bulk counterparts; their high surface-area-to-volume ratio imparts unique physiochemical properties, including versatile functionalities and enhanced reactivity or selectivity.

From saving raw materials, energy, and water, to decreasing greenhouse gases and toxic waste, nanotechnology’s unique attributes can be utilized in various products, procedures, and applications that could undoubtedly support environmental and climate protection. It reduces the use of energy and fuel by using less material and renewable inputs wherever possible. Green nanotechnology, in phytoformulations, significantly contributes to environmental sustainability through the production of nanomaterials and nanoproducts, without causing harm to human health or the environment. Green and sustainable are the future directions of nanoscience.

  • What else you would like to share with early career materials or energy researchers about how far nanomaterials science is in solving energy problems or what approach(es) they should adopt to figure out the gaps in nanoscience applications for energy storage for society and community

Nanomaterials and new energy materials are two emerging fields in the 21st century. This means that there are still many unknown areas in nano-energy storage technology that are worthy of development, and there are also many problems waiting for us to solve. The current research and development of energy storage devices are facing three key scientific problems. The first is the fast capacity decay. The second is the difficulty of balancing energy density and power density. The last one is the security issue. We have made a lot of efforts and attempts to solve these problems, and have achieved good results and progress. For example, our team has designed and constructed more than ten kinds of materials with electron/ion dual continuous and rapid transport three-dimensional structures. Starting from the configuration of the energy storage chip, we developed a radiative electric field-regulated high-ratio characteristic micro-energy storage chip, and found that the ion migration rate increased by 10 times after the field effect was applied, and the material capacity was increased by more than 3 times, achieving a synergistic increase in energy density and power density. I hope that the majority of young scholars will have perseverance in their research and do their best to overcome difficulties. Failure is not terrible, but you must have the spirit of persistence and make unremitting efforts for it. Come on, young people, the future is yours!


Interview was conducted by Irum Shaheen, who is currenlty a postdoc fellow at University Nanotechnology Research and Application Center (SUNUM), Sabanci University, Istanbul, Turkey. Her focus of research is energy materials.