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Woochul Lee research group

Mobile electronics, electric vehicles, medical devices, aerospace systems, and more technologies may operate with greater efficiency, thanks to new research by Associate Professor Woochul Lee from the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa. Lee earned a five-year, $546,503 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER award for his project, “Thermal Transport in Polymer Nanofibers under Strain Modulation.”

The NSF CAREER Award is one of the National Science Foundation’s most prestigious recognitions, specifically designed for early-career faculty members. It is awarded to those who show great potential to become academic role models in research and education, and to emerge as leaders in their respective fields. This is the second consecutive year a UH Mānoa Department of Mechanical Engineering faculty member earned an NSF CAREER award—Assistant Professor Tyler Ray earned an award in 2023.

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Woochul Lee’s research could help electronics from overheating.

“I am honored to be the recipient of the NSF CAREER Award,” Lee said. “This award highlights the importance of our research in unveiling the fundamental thermal transport mechanisms in polymers. To achieve this, we will develop an innovative experimental platform equipped with new experimental capabilities to examine the thermal conductivity of polymer nanofibers and their internal structures.”

Lee’s research will focus on designing plastics that are excellent at conducting heat, which is important for many kinds of technologies. One of the industries that could utilize this research is electronics, such as smartphones and computers, which would prevent the devices from overheating resulting in optimal performance.

How heat moves through plastics

As technology advances, manufacturers want thermally conductive, affordable, lightweight, and corrosion-resistant materials. Plastics, versatile but poor heat conductors, hinder their use in some advanced technologies. Researchers aim to enhance plastics’ thermal conductivity, yet understanding how heat moves through plastics remains a challenge.

Lee’s project aims to solve this problem by developing a new way to study how heat moves through tiny plastic fibers. The project has three main goals:

  • Create a way to measure thermal properties when plastic is stretched
  • Examine how thermal properties and structures change when plastic is stretched differently
  • Explore the basic scientific rules that control heat in plastics

Lee’s project will help students learn about thermal engineering through workshops and research opportunities, with a particular focus on reaching Native Hawaiian students who are underrepresented in science and engineering.

“I’m excited to see how our research in nanotechnologies will influence our ongoing research in engineering education as well,” Lee said. “While making scientific discoveries is important, the way we engage students and create a nurturing environment for them to succeed in STEM is equally important. The goal is to encourage more people to get interested in science and become the scientists and engineers of the future.”

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