Fascinated by science on a very small scale
The UIC Distinguished Professorship recognizes scholarship, creativity and leadership.
Before “nanotech” was even a word, Alexander Yarin was fascinated by the small.
His entire career has moved Yarin, professor of mechanical and industrial engineering, to a smaller and smaller scale. Trained as an applied physicist, Yarin studies hydromechanics, polymer science and fluid and solid mechanics — “small jets, tiny droplets and thin films,” he says.
Yarin’s work with tiny droplets took one of his experiments and two brothers from his lab — Suman Sinha Ray, a postdoctoral fellow, and Sumit Sinha Ray, a graduate student — on the ride of their lives. They conducted experiments while floating weightless on a Novespace and European Space Agency plane to see if a cooling systems for microelectronics based on the evaporation of tiny droplets would work in weightless conditions.
Yarin’s work on tiny things led to the darling of nanotechnology: graphene, a one-atom-thick sheet of carbon atoms that is strong, thin, light, flexible and conducts electricity and heat almost perfectly.
Graphene’s potential uses include almost anything you can think of — touch screens, sensors, flexible displays, next-generation electronic devices. But there has been no easy way to scale up from the microscopic to large-scale high quality graphene sheets. Working with a colleague in Korea, Yarin devised a supersonic spray method that deposits tiny graphene flakes into a nearly perfect thin film.
In addition to his interest in small things, Yarin enjoys reading about the history of science, which he believes enriches his teaching and mentoring.
“I want students to understand that science was done by many different kinds of people, with different approaches, different traits, different circumstances — some successful, some tragic,” he says. “While it’s impossible to explain exactly how they got their results, because it’s always like a miracle,” he says, “it’s important to see that they were real people.”
Yarin received his M.Sc. in mechanical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Leningrad and his doctorate in physico-mathematical sciences from the Institute for Problems in Mechanic in Moscow. After post-graduate work in Moscow, he took an academic post at the Technicon in Haifa, Israel, where he was the Eduard Pestel chair in mechanical engineering.
Throughout his career, Yarin has taken short “visiting professor” appointments all over Europe and the U.S. He chose to settle down at UIC in 2006. “I had small children at the time and I considered the school education to be very good,” he says. One of his children is an Urbana-Champaign campus graduate in computer science; another is a senior at Stanford. “I hear criticism of the American school system, but Hinsdale Central was very good,” he says.
Yarin is a great fan of blues music and enjoys introducing his colleagues to blues clubs in his rare free time. “It’s the only music I listen to. Somehow, it touches my soul,” he says.