Homage for a humble icon of science

June 27, 2019

Ching Tang speaking at a podium.

Every weekend, when he takes his children shopping at a local wholesale store, Mitchell Anthamatten is reminded of the magnitude of what his friend and colleague Ching Tang has accomplished.

Anthamatten’s children immediately gravitate to an OLED display in the electronics section. They sit in front of it, “mesmerized” by the beautiful, high contrast images, the chair of chemical engineering at the University of Rochester said.

“And it always costs me 15 minutes before I can get them away,” Anthamatten related during a luncheon honoring Tang.

The emeritus professor of chemical engineering has been named a recipient of this year’s prestigious Kyoto Prize for pioneering organic light-emitting diodes (OLEDs). The technology has spawned a multi-billion-dollar industry in lighting displays, and is widely used in computers, smartphones, and televisions.

The Kyoto Prize is widely regarded as ranking just behind the Nobel Prize in significance, hence the celebration.

“This is a very big deal. My kids tell me the word awesome is outdated,” Anthamatten joked. “So instead we call this an epic deal.”

And it is one more chapter in an “incredible year” for the Hajim School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, adds Dean Wendi Heinzelman, “starting with Donna Strickland (’89 PhD) and Gerard Mourou receiving the Nobel Prize in Physics.”

Triumph out of failure

As often happens in science, Tang’s discovery occurred while he was searching for a different outcome.

“My job was to make solar cells,” says Tang, who was then a research chemist at Eastman Kodak Co. “I failed miserably.”

But in the course of his research he discovered that two thin layers of photovoltaic material stacked on each other produced high efficiency light emissions at low voltages. This was the first demonstration of OLED technology.

Even then, Tang relates, “there was no expectation of any product coming out of this.” The device worked for only a few seconds at a time, and Kodak was primarily interested in photographic film.

However, before the project was shut down, Tang published a seminal 1987 paper on his discovery that has now been cited more than 16,000 times.

Samsung and LG eventually acquired the rights to further develop the technology.  The rest is history. And Tang’s stature has continued to grow.

“For decades, Ching has had an unprecedented following at national and international meetings,” Anthamatten says. “His inventions have mobilized the display industry.”

A role model in many ways

After 31 years at Kodak, Tang was ready for a change. He joined the faculty of the Department of Chemical Engineering in 2006 as the result of a spirited recruiting effort led by Shaw Chen, then the department chair. The department has been counting its blessings ever since.

Anthamatten was a junior faculty member at the time. “I immediately felt that Ching boosted our department,” he recalls. “He was instantly one of our points of pride.”

Heinzelman was also a junior faculty member, in electrical and computer engineering.

“I remember thinking at the time how amazing it was that someone who was so accomplished in their career would come to the University and ‘give back,’ mentoring our students and being a resource to lead the next generation to achieve the same heights that he has been able to achieve.”

In addition to continuing his “active and visible” research in OLEDs, organic photovoltaics (OPVs) and solid-state lighting, Tang has taught his Rochester students “how to tackle extremely complex problems by seamlessly integrating and intertwining materials chemistry, device physics and engineering,” Anthamatten says. “He has a really uncanny ability to reduce intricate scientific matters to simple explanations that have common sense behind them.”

“To have had a mentor and an advisor and teacher as distinguished as Ching is something these students will take with them throughout the rest of their lives,” Heinzelman adds. “And hopefully they will become the next Kyoto Prize winners and Nobel laureates.”

Tang has been a role model in other ways as well.

“At a personal level, Ching is unassuming, good-natured, and he’s very patient with his students and colleagues,” Anthamatten says. Rob Clark, the University Provost and former Hajim dean, echoed those sentiments. “I want to thank you for the work that you’ve done, and for being so humble and so inclusive in setting an example of what role models in science and engineering should really look like,” Clark told Tang at the luncheon.

Tang now spends most of his time in Hong Kong, the city where he was born, and where he now serves as the IAS Bank of East Asia Endowed Professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.  However, he still collaborates with former colleagues in Rochester, still returns each summer to visit, “still keeps connected.”

“Rochester is still my home,” Tang says.