Xin Zhang Elected to National Academy of Inventors
BU engineer is known for developing new metamaterials capable of warping their properties
When she’s not captivated by a Patriots or Celtics game, Boston University engineer Xin Zhang is inventing new materials that seem straight out of science fiction—using magnetic properties to increase the clarity of MRI imaging or leveraging acoustics to “cancel” sounds by sending them back in the direction they came from. Now she’s being recognized for her pioneering work in the field of metamaterials by the National Academy of Inventors, which has recently elected her a fellow. Zhang, a BU College of Engineering professor of mechanical, biomedical, electrical and computer engineering, as well as materials science and engineering, and a professor at the BU Photonics Center, told The Brink about why she loves being an inventor and shares how collaboration makes it all possible.
With Xin Zhang
The Brink: You’ve said you enjoy being an engineer because it gives you the ability to create technologies that help society. Which of your inventions are you most proud of?
I am most proud of two recent metamaterial technologies that my team has created. The first is what we call a magnetic metamaterial, which is able to interact with and enhance radiofrequency (RF) energy. This ability to enhance RF energy is uniquely suited to improve the performance of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), making the entire MRI process faster, safer, and more accessible. In the future, our magnetic metamaterial could enable inexpensive, portable MRI systems to be deployed in remote locations throughout the developing world. The magnetic metamaterial’s potential to directly positively affect human health is something that I take incredible pride in.
The second invention is also a metamaterial-enabled technology, except this one is related to acoustics. Using what we’ve termed an ultra-open metamaterial design, we are able to block noise without blocking airflow. Our acoustic metamaterial is able to silence noise using an open, ringlike structure, designed to mathematically perfect specifications for cutting out sounds while maintaining airflow. I am proud of this invention because of the diverse array of industries that have expressed interest in applying this invention to their particular noise-related pain point. This includes the heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) industry, as well as aerospace, automobile, architectural/design, and defense industries. I love that our metamaterial can potentially impact society across such an array of industrial applications.
How do your relationships with collaborators at BU, other universities, and in industry help you zero in on promising new technological solutions?
Relationships with other academic collaborators are critical to the success of my team’s ability to address societally relevant problems. For example, Stephan Anderson, a BU School of Medicine professor of radiology, and I collaborated to develop the MRI-related magnetic metamaterial technology. Having a collaborator with expertise in a different discipline is absolutely necessary to ensure an understanding of the whole picture and being able to develop practical, relevant technologies. Similarly, in my collaborations with industrial partners, we are able to solve very specific technological problems driven by the needs of industry. Without the industrial collaboration, understanding their needs and the unique requisites to implementing new solutions in the real world would simply not be possible.
What problem(s) would you like to solve with new technologies in the future? Is there anything that sticks out in your mind as being a technological challenge that you’d especially like to help overcome?
Certainly further exploring how to apply the MRI-related metamaterial technology to enable an inexpensive, portable MRI system sticks out in my mind. The combination of potential societal impact, specific to human health in this case, and interesting technological and scientific challenges is incredibly appealing to me. I also hope to work on new technologies that I am not yet even aware of, and hope to be guided to discover these new challenges by my usual sources for inspiration—my gifted and incredibly creative students, my many academic collaborators, or my diverse industrial partners.
When you’re not working in the lab, what do you like to do for hobbies in your free time?
I like traveling, walking, music, movies, and good food. One thing I absolutely love is sports. I love watching sports, listening to sports, reading about sports, and arguing about sports. From that perspective, Boston is a great city to live in!