Here’s the big takeaway, right at the top, because this could get a little confusing later on:
Mindy Zhang is an impressive scientist who leads an incredibly innovative team at the Toyota Technical Center in Ann Arbor, Mich. “Possible” is just a phrase to her. A phrase she routinely challenges.
Zhang just earned her 36th patent over the course of a 15-year career with Toyota, making her one of the most patented women in the automotive industry. Add that to the 15 patents she earned previously, working in the semiconductor industry in Japan, and it’s clear that Zhang is a driving force of technology.
Of course, these patents aren’t hers alone. Zhang heads a 30-person team that concentrates on battery, catalyst, and functional materials technology.
To those outside of material science, Zhang’s world is technical and foreign. It can be hard for anyone
to understand. But what’s evident is that she and her team are making huge strides in the automotive industry.
And what’s even further obvious is that Zhang and her team are the embodiment of Toyota Motor North America’s new cultural framework. Challenging what’s possible? Check. Thinking innovatively? That’s their job. Growing their people’s capabilities? Well, when your breakthroughs are things that have never been seen in the world, there’s a good chance personal growth was at the forefront. Collaborations across boundaries? Their discoveries were an effort of the 30 team members Zhang oversees. That takes a ton of teamwork.
Bending the Light -- Zhang's light cloaking technology, which makes objects seemingly disappear, isn't magic. It's science. (Photos by Brian Watkins)
Zhang and her team mastered innovative thinking by creating an “invisibility cloak” with mirrors and polarizing lenses. The cloak device is a cigar box shaped item. It’s solid, except for a square hole in the middle. At her office at TTC, she takes a metal, very nontransparent yellow cylinder bar, slides it into the hole at the top, and holds the box at eye level. The yellow cylinder completely disappears; you can now see directly through the box and, seemingly, the bar.
The light seems to go straight through.
The lenses bend an object in a person’s field of view, essentially leaving a visual black hole. Then, they reroute light around the object, so that the viewer sees what’s behind it. As a result, viewers believe they are seeing right through visual obstructions.
“It’s a manipulation of light,” Zhang says. “We figured it out in 2015 but we still have a lot of things to improve.”
Though Zhang can’t reveal planned uses for the light cloaking breakthrough, it could play a major role in future projects.
“To be a good scientist, you need to be curious,” Zhang says. “Good scientists should possess several traits that include curiosity, imagination and a tenacity for problem solving.”
Zhang learned that curiosity growing up in China. While her western counterparts idolized athletes and actors, her heroes were a little more technical.
“At that time in China, scientists were the superstars,” Zhang says. “Different countries have different heroes, and what we knew were scientists. We thought they were really cool.”
Painted and Proud -- Zhang and her team's structural paint was the unsung hero at the Lexus LC reveal.
Status Quo Challenged
Zhang’s proudest patent is known as structural color. In 2016, Zhang and her team made the mark unveiling the Lexus LC 500h at auto shows in Geneva and New York with a paint color called structural blue.
Here’s the gist: Structural color is generated from layered nanostructures – super small flakes – that can interfere or scatter light, displaying specific colors. Zhang’s team found a way to control the brightness and color purity by controlling the thickness of the layers.
Zhang says the development of the brilliant color grew from a study of structures in the wings of butterflies
“We worked with the basic principles of light to create a special effect color,” she said.
That’s just one patent that makes up Zhang’s tapestry of inventive honors. But really, the number doesn’t matter to her.
“I’ve never thought of working toward a number,” she says. “What I’m really passionate about is seeing the technology that I’ve help develop go to the market. That is the real motivation: To make these things a reality for people. I am more proud when I can say. ‘This is technology I developed, and it’s making people’s lives easier, safer or richer.’”