Published: Dec. 18, 2018 By

Yao Zhai in research labPostdoctoral Associate Yao Zhai’s love for science began when he was young. He remembers looking up to his grandfather, who went from having nothing to establishing a manufacturing company all by himself.

“I dreamed of inventing something and making it useful in the world,” Zhai said.

Now, it seems Zhai has done just that.

As a PhD student in mechanical engineering, Zhai used his graduate research experience to explore a newly-developed building cooling technology with the potential to save large amounts of energy.

His dissertation, titled “Scalable manufactured random metamaterial for sub-ambient day-time radiative cooling,” earned him the Steven M. Woodward Outstanding Dissertation Award from his department and the Outstanding Dissertation award from the College of Engineering and Applied Science.

Zhai graduated from CU Boulder in August 2018 with a PhD in mechanical engineering and a focus in materials science. He studied under Professor Xiaobo Yin, who not only taught him how to do research and solve problems, Zhai said, but also how to be a good person. Yin’s higher standard in research and work ethic were a source of inspiration.

Zhai’s dissertation explores the design and manufacturing of an optical metamaterial capable of providing radiative cooling even during the day when heat from solar radiation is high. The material reflects incoming sunlight while allowing an object’s stored heat to escape, consuming close to no electricity.

Yao Zhai conducting field tests in ArizonaSince 10 percent of the world’s energy consumption is tied to air conditioning, and there is a need for increased efficiency in power-generation plants, this novel technology will likely impact both homes and industry.

At times, Zhai said he experienced great pressures, tight time frames and limited resources early on when applying for funding, but he now believes it was all worth it.

“When you finally get the results you expected, your effort pays off. You feel the power of science, and it is like magic!” Zhai said.

For this reason, Zhai aims to continue his career in academia.

“There are so many people to appreciate: colleagues, staff, my graduate advisor and Professor Xiaobo Yin for his huge support and patience in educating me,” Zhai said. “I am also appreciative of my wife and parents for their endless support, which makes me feel fearless when facing challenges.”