Dr. John Tse
Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Materials Science
“I think the question is always why?” says John Tse, Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Materials Science. Tse studies the fundamental behaviour of materials and then tries to manipulate these materials based on his understanding.
“When you understand why something conducts electricity without resistance or why a material is very hard, you can determine if these features can be combined to form a single material,” he says.
Tse describes science as a tool for manipulation. “Once you understand something, you want to manipulate it according to your wishes. Understanding is interesting, but you must also make use of it.”
Recruited from the National Research Council’s Steacie Institute for Molecular Sciences in Ottawa, Tse joined the University of Saskatchewan Department of Physics and Engineering Physics last September. In addition to establishing a computational materials science group, he is using the U of S-owned Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron and the Saskatchewan Structural Sciences Centre (SSSC) to explore the behaviour of materials under high pressures and temperatures—research that could lead to advanced alloys and electronics, as well as a better understanding of the chemistry and dynamics of earth’s molten iron core.
While we can never go to the centre of the earth, Tse can mimic those extreme conditions in a little laboratory that would fit into the palm of your hand. He is developing a world-class diamond anvil cell on one of the CLS beamlines to study high-pressure phenomenon.
“This method allows us to mimic the conditions normally only found deep inside the earth,” he explains. “By investigating the properties of materials under these conditions, we can extrapolate and predict exactly what is going on under our feet. That is very important in understanding the structure of the earth,” he says.
Not all of Tse’s work is so theoretical. He also applies his expertise to more practical applications. For example, he is interested in the potential of thermoelectric materials. Discovered over 200 years ago, our use of these materials is currently limited to those that are naturally occurring, and their performance is poor. Improved thermoelectric performance would a have a range of applications, such as cooling your laptop computer.
By trying to understand what causes a thermoelectric effect, Tse hopes to determine how to optimize the individual parameters of thermoelectric materials—either ones that already exist or custom designed alloys. Creating these designer allows, however, is not part of Tse’s job description.
“Science is incremental,” he explains. “We don’t do it all ourselves. I will study something and try to understand it. Hopefully, the results will stimulate other experts to exploit these ideas and make something new.”
Either working collaboratively or independently, Tse considers himself very lucky to be working as research scientist on topics he really enjoys. “Every day scientists face a challenging problem, a mystery, a puzzle we want to solve. Through that process, even if we don’t solve the puzzle, we feel like we are making a contribution to a further understanding. That’s really the motivation, creating something that will hopefully be useful to our colleagues and, by extension, to everyone.”