At the 2023 APEC ASPIRE Awards, Dr. Liu Zheng Tackles Sustainability with 2-D Materials


Can technology help us reach our 2050 emissions goal? This year’s APEC ASPIRE winner, Dr. Liu Zheng, found a way to reduce energy consumption and make hydrogen energy production more accessible using 2-D materials.

At the 2023 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Seattle, Dr. Liu Zheng of Singapore received the Science Prize for Innovation, Research, and Education (ASPIRE) along with $25,000 sponsored by Wiley and Elsevier. Dr. Zheng’s groundbreaking development of sustainable 2-D Materials put him ahead of fifteen other well-deserving nominees.

The APEC ASPIRE prize is an annual award that recognizes scientific achievement and cooperation amongst scientists and researchers from APEC member economies. The APEC region consists of 21 countries along the Pacific Rim, representing 48% of global trade in goods and services and 62% of the world’s GDP. As the 2023 APEC host country, the United States chose the theme: “Inclusive Science, Technology, and Innovation for a Resilient and Sustainable Environment.” Since 2003, APEC economies have contributed nearly $32.2 billion to the US energy sector. This year’s theme and awardee emphasize the growing importance of green growth innovations.

Youngsuk Choi, chairman of Elsevier, commended Dr. Zheng’s work, saying, “In addition to reducing the risk of energy over-consumption, Dr Zheng’s research and its applications have the potential to revolutionize the semiconductor industry.”

The Outsized Applications of Nano-Sized Materials

Nicknamed “The Gardner,” Dr. Zheng has spent years developing 2-D materials in his lab at Nanyang Technological University. 2-D materials are ultra-thin, ranging from a few nanometers to below one nanometer. For comparison, one strand of hair is thousands of times thicker than a single filament of Zheng’s 2-D material.

At the APEC forum in Seattle, Dr. Zheng outlined two applications for 2-D technology. First, this technology can reduce energy consumption by using 2-D materials as semiconductor transistors. Semiconductors are types of microchips used in virtually every modern electronic device. These microchips contain transistors that work as conduits of electricity by controlling and managing electrical currents. At present, most semiconductors use silicon-based transistors, which require a higher working voltage to produce power. With 2-D materials, an alternative type of transistor, known as a negative capitance transistor (NCT) can be used. Unlike conventional transistors, NCTs can reduce voltage greatly, reducing energy consumption by 90%. .

More complex technologies from Artificial Intelligence to fuel cells require higher levels of voltage, leading to energy overconsumption. As these technologies continue to become commonplace, 2-D materials offer a potential solution to unsustainable energy demands. This can lead to real benefits for US and APEC businesses. “I see really great commercial potential of this material,” said Zheng. “We can make a huge impact in the market.”

2-D Materials Support Green Growth Technologies

The second application of this technology lies in the green growth sector. In the area of hydrogen energy production, 2-D materials carry revolutionary applications. For hydrogen fuel cells to create electricity, a physical catalyst is needed to split hydrogen protons from their electrons. Dr. Zheng developed a 2-D catalyst in the form of platinum selenide. Typically, hydrogen fuel cells use platinum to separate protons from electrons. With platinum selenide, platinum use reduces by 99%, significantly lowering the costs of these fuel cells.

According to Dr. Zheng, “[hydrogen energy] can help us realize the 2050 goal of carbon emissions, zero carbon emissions.”

Dr. Zheng Embodies the Mission of APEC

APEC was founded with the mission of building international cooperation by strengthening partnerships in science, technology, and innovation. In the words of Dr. Zheng, “collaboration is a key factor to promote science breakthrough... if we with talk with others from different areas, we get inspired.”

Juan San Nicolas is a participant in the Young Professionals Program at the East-West Center in Washington, D.C. He is a current graduate student at Georgetown University, concentrating in Science, Technology, and International Affairs.