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Meet the American Chemical Society’s first sustainability star, Liang Feng

Duke University professor develops innovative materials and mechanisms to address global energy, climate, and health challenges

by Sara Cottle
June 1, 2024 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 102, Issue 17


A man stands with his arms crossed in front of a stone chapel.
Credit: Courtesy of Liang Feng
Liang Feng stands at the top of the Duke Chapel, the highest building in the Durham, North Carolina, area.

Liang Feng is an assistant professor in the Thomas Lord Department of Mechanical Engineering and Materials Science at Duke University and the American Chemical Society’s first sustainability star.

ACS has begun a campaign to recognize scientists from the global ACS community whose work and engagement encourage sustainability. This encouragement might be expressed through transforming labs into sustainable workspaces; collaborating with students and postdoctoral scholars on creating a positive environmental impact through teaching, service, or outreach; or other ways of showing one’s passion for solving humanity’s grand challenges. Interested candidates can share their sustainability story and self-nominate by visiting

The Feng Group’s mission is “to develop innovative materials and mechanisms to address pressing global challenges in energy, climate, and health,” and Feng has been doing just that through his work with materials. He has already contributed to revolutionizing the approach to carbon capture and water remediation in nonequilibrium systems with a breakthrough discovery of a fundamentally new adsorption mechanism—the first since the 1930s.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

I think the most important goal we hope to achieve is to utilize some materials to absorb the CO2 from the air.

Did anything from your childhood inspire you to want to grow up and be a scientist or, more specifically, a chemist?

When I was at my high school, I think I was most attracted to the chemistry. It looks like magic to me. There are a lot of color changes, right? Like when you react an acid and a base, the indicator changes colors from purple to blue. I think that moment definitely shaped my career pathway today. After that first moment, I got attached to chemistry, and I’ve spent the rest of my life with it.

That moment [discovering the color changes in acid-base reactions], I think that’s definitely a superbly enjoyable moment. After that, I started to study a lot of chemistry in my high school and that continued into my undergraduate study. I did quite a good job in chemistry. I think that’s really my thing. Basically, I fell in love with chemistry.

I think this motivation and this interest, this magic or magic attraction, definitely inspired me a lot. And later on, I discovered more and more interesting things about chemistry—like a lot of history of chemistry, like how a reaction was performed 100 or 200 years ago. And I keep engaged in those things, the history of chemistry, as well as the environment.

It’s amazing to me and I’m super glad to be part of it right now.

Did you ever see yourself specifically studying sustainability or getting into that path of chemistry at any point? Or how did that find you?

Yes, I think that happened during my second year of my undergraduate study. At that time I was more interested in research activity. I found a faculty [member] and lab, and he showed me a lot of fancy stuff happening in his lab. He was working with porous materials, metal-organic frameworks, and when I entered his lab he showed off these white, beautiful crystals. And he put those crystals under the microscope. So then I can see the nanostructure, I can see the shiny regular shape of those—and [they’re] also quite colorful, like blue green and many other different colors. That was the first time I got into a lab and saw what was going on [there]. And later on, when I took the project of those metal-organic frameworks, I found they also have very good applications in sustainability.

That was 10 years ago. I think the researchers [at the time] were utilizing those porous crystals for hydrogen storage, and I think they were achieving record high hydrogen storage at 77 K, and that’s amazing. I participated a lot in research projects when I was an undergraduate student, synthesizing those and other crystals and also testing the gas absorption capacity, especially related to gases like hydrogen, methane, and CO2. That was an important turning point in my career that also shaped my research pathway.

How do you feel about being a chemist and working in sustainability toward solutions? For instance, do you feel like there are any misconceptions? Or what is your point of view on that?

I think definitely nowadays the new generation of chemists or chemical engineers should take more responsibilities in handling chemicals in a much, much safer way. A more, say, sustainable way.

The chemicals—the chemistry—are super useful from the past century. They especially, I think, originated from the oil industry, right, generating a lot of CO2 emissions into the air and also producing a huge amount of plastic materials. And those outcomes—like the plastic waste and all of the emissions into our air—definitely have a lot of, maybe, bad impacts to our planet, our environment. I think it’s not too late right now to take more actions, to reflect [on] what we have done in the past century and what we could do to improve the future, for our future generation of new scientists and the people. I think that’s something that could be solved.

The [task] here is a little bit challenging because we have emitted a huge amount of CO2 into the air in the past century and also [made] a lot of plastic waste from production. I think that the scale of those damages to the environment, they are challenging, but I think we still have feasible ways to tackle those existing challenges. Our group, we are super passionate about pursuing new technology about those porous materials to remove the CO2 from the air. Our goal is to reduce the CO2 in the air and also decrease the CO2 concentration in the air in a low-cost way. And through our research—and there are many other groups working on the same challenge—based on the results and the data we have, I’m still very positive and optimistic about the change we can make to the world. For example, to achieve this net-zero emission by 2050, and also a lot of other goals, I think that it’s definitely feasible to do that.

And we also have very passionate young people, like undergraduate students, PhD students, and postdocs, who are joining us to form a very strong team to work on those important questions. I can feel the strong passion from the young generation. . . . I think that’s a good advantage that we can work together and solve the problems related to sustainability and chemicals.

Eleven students stand side by side in front of a building on the Duke University campus.
Credit: Courtesy of Liang Feng
Liang Feng‘s interdisciplinary research team includes undergraduate, master’s, and PhD students, as well as postdoctoral fellows, with diverse training backgrounds.

I do see that you teach an undergraduate class. From your perspective, would you say that these kids inspire you about the future, or are “the kids all right,” as they say today?

Yes, I think that the students are super passionate about solving the issues. So at Duke University, in 2021 I think, Duke University announced a climate commitment. It’s a university-wide initiative that calls for the actions of all the departments—all the schools—to act on climate-related projects, or courses, or research.

So here we have passionate students who want to contribute to [the solutions to] this issue. In my class, I design a lot of discussion topics and also a lot of frontier topics related to energy, sustainability, and climate to pose to the students. And they are not only passionate but also ready, and I think that’s something that surprised me a lot—that they are super ready, and they have a lot of knowledge and are passionate to tackle the climate issues.

I really enjoy teaching the class and interacting with the students. I’m very impressed, and they encourage me to integrate more and more frontier or state-of-the-art technology in my classroom.

That goes perfectly into my next question, which is, What motivates you to keep working in this field and finding innovations?

I think we, as researchers, we really want to tackle big problems, and we want to make something work and work out the important questions.

So that’s something my postdoc advisor always told us when he mentored us: we’ve got to solve big problems. And I think right now the most important problem for all people, one of the most important, definitely is the climate and sustainability, and it’s related to everyone. As long as you need to breathe the air, as long as you live somewhere, I think you can fear or face some of the impact of those environmental issues. They can influence you.

[Facing the impact of issues is] something our team, we felt was the most important thing to do. We got to utilize some chemistry and combine that with engineering methods to solve some of the climate and the sustainability issues. My team is a little bit unique because I come from a purely chemistry background, but now I’m in an engineering department. Our students’ backgrounds are quite diverse—we have chemical engineering students, we have materials science and engineering students, and we also have a large portion of chemistry students. So we utilize the chemistry fundamental principles and are doing some innovation in the new materials and to tackle practical engineering problems related to greenhouse gas captures and many other system-availability-related problems. We think, or the idea is, as long as we work on it and we have a strong commitment, then we will achieve that. That’s the confidence we have, and I believe that in our group we have the competence to achieve there and then to make a very big impact in the future.

We have a lot of encouragement from the funding agencies as well. [The Alfred P.] Sloan Foundation, they recently funded us in a project related to carbon capture, and recently we were selected as a finalist by the [US Department of Energy], the [Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy], they have this carbon capture project as well. I think those are the positive feedbacks we received from the community, and from the funders and also the reviewers at a higher level. With all this support from the universities, the funding agencies, the communities, and from the ACS, we are definitely going to change a lot in the next 5–10 years.

OK, time for a question I love to ask all scientists and researchers. Can you try to explain to me the work that you do like I’m 10 years old—using the simplest terms that encompass what you do?

A man in a lab coat and blue gloves sits in front of a microscope.

Credit: Courtesy of Liang Feng
Liang Feng sits in his research lab.

I think the most important goal we hope to achieve is to utilize some materials to absorb the CO2 from the air.

So in the air we have a relatively diluted CO2, it’s only 400 [parts per million]. So sometimes it’s challenging to remove that, but nature has a solution. You can see all the trees outside. Those trees, they can utilize photosynthesis to pump the CO2 and convert them into sugar. So something we are doing to mimic those findings from the process is to discover new soft materials that can remove that diluted CO2 found in the air. And then in a larger quantity, and in low-cost ways. And store that underground or convert that into a useful product: for example, ethanol, or methanol, or some plastic materials. And then discover a new mechanism to help us to do the [CO2] adsorption more actively and the process more smartly, like biologically what has already been done. We’ve got a lot of inspiration from the biologies, and that’s a great advantage.

What are some of the challenges you’ve faced along the way in your research, and do you see any big ones in the future?

Let me talk about some challenges we have when we want to develop some materials. We often see some materials that are super good in the lab, but when we want to scale it up and utilize it in the real market, we’re going to have a lot of challenges in this transition—how to move the products out of the lab to the market.

That’s something I’m more recently interested in: figuring out solutions to tackle these issues. One good thing is we have a lot of industry parallel here and around Duke University. There is the Research Triangle Park and there are some start-up companies working on carbon capture. They have fancy engineering facilities that can utilize our materials for large-scale performance evaluations. I’m currently trying to build those connections to really figure out what are the needs from the real world. What’s the need from industry, and how can we bridge our interest in the fundamental chemistries in the lab, in academia, and the technical needs from industry, from the real world. That’s something where we need a lot of discussions and communication and also collaborations. And I think that’s something we’re going to have a lot of progress in, in the next several years.


Shifting gears a little, for someone who isn’t in chemistry, what are some small suggestions for living more sustainably? Do you have any specific energy-related ones?

I see a lot of really great examples from my colleagues. A lot of my colleagues walk, ride, or even run onto campus for daily work. Some of them run and maybe need to run an hour to arrive into the office. I think that’s quite healthy. At Duke, we have a lot of forests, and they’re good for outdoor activities and for people to commute between their home and their office on campus. That’s definitely a very good way to live more sustainably. I personally do a lot of running and biking as well, try to minimize the use of the car, of the oil. So, that’s something I think people can do. It’s not only good for the environment but also good for personal health.

And when you’re not, you know, busy changing the world and doing all this research, what are some of your favorite hobbies or things to do outside of your research?

I like watching movies and I like hiking. I think that may be my most important hobby. I like walking in the state parks and hiking, and a lot of water activities as well. I also like reading, reading all different kinds of books and the perspective and stories from others.

I think that the students are super passionate about solving the issues.

And then specific to the American Chemical Society, how has being part of ACS helped you or inspired you in your career in any way?

ACS is definitely one of the most important societies in my past 8 years in the US. We published a lot of journal articles, maybe the most important ones, in the ACS journals, including the ACS Catalysis and ACS Materials Letters. A lot of my publications are on the ACS in general, so they get a lot of attention, and that’s great.

I also attended a lot of ACS conferences, maybe 5 national conferences. One of the most important or rewarding parts of the conference is attending the workshop parts. I attended a lot of career-development-related workshops at the ACS conferences. Personally, I’m coming from a first-generation student background. I don’t know how to navigate a lot of things in academia or in industry. So I needed to find a lot of resources. And not only the conference, but also the online resources, including those workshops, and the ACS conference, they provided me a lot of resources to grow and achieve what I have achieved at this stage.

I went to a lot of ACS workshops, like the postdoc faculty workshops, too. I attended like 2 years ago, so I learned a lot of skills or knowledge about how to transition from a postdoc position to a faculty position. This type of activity happening at every stage of my academic career has been super helpful.

I’ve also got a lot of awards and recognitions from ACS, from the ACS [Division of] Inorganic Chemistry and from the [Division of] Colloid and Surface [Chemistry], the [Division of Polymeric Materials: Science and Engineering], and also CAS. I was selected as a CAS Future Leader, where I went to Ohio and visited their headquarters, and that was an amazing experience. I definitely have a lot of things to say with ACS; I think it’s always with me. I’m super glad to have this support, the resources, and the opportunities.

Last question, is there any advice you’d like to impart to any future sustainability stars?

Keep doing what you feel is most important to you and what is most passionate to you. Sometimes I think that’s what we need when we need to tackle a big problem. What we believe is most important and most impactful.


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