Bao Xinhe (second left) discusses an experiment with colleagues in a lab in Liaoning province. XIE ZHENLIN/FOR CHINA DAILY
Original breakthroughs in chemistry and materials science have taken the first prizes of the 2020 State Natural Science Award, the nation's highest academic accolade for basic sciences.
The winning teams come from the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences in Liaoning province, and Fudan University in Shanghai.
The Dalian scientists founded a new concept, "nano-confined catalysis", while the Fudan team developed a new type of mesoporous material, a substance that contains pores with diameters of between 2 and 50 nanometers.
Experts said the two feats have not only cemented China's position as one of the world's front-runners in chemistry and materials science, but they have also led to promising industrial applications in the fields of energy, oil refining, advanced materials, chemical manufacturing and environmental protection, along with other sectors.
Passion, communication, unyielding curiosity, a keen eye for detail and decades of rigorous work are some of the secrets to making major breakthroughs in basic sciences, according to members of the Dalian team.
Bao Xinhe, a researcher with the institute in Dalian and president of the University of Science and Technology of China, said the creation of their new concept is based on more than 20 years of hard work. Meanwhile, the concept itself provides important guidance in the design of highly efficient catalysts－substances that can facilitate chemical reactions without undergoing any permanent chemical changes themselves.
"The key to making efficient chemical reactions with less environmental and energy impact lies in a deep understanding of reaction mechanisms," Bao said.
"However, we don't always know how the reactants are converted into products, and what will come out in the end. It functions like a black box. The nano-confined catalysis concept can shed some light on this, leading to more precise and controllable chemical reactions."
For example, chemical engineers typically use a process known as the Fischer-Tropsch Synthesis to convert coal-derived syngas (a mixture of carbon monoxide and hydrogen) into light olefins－substances that can be converted into key raw materials for the production of fuels, additives, plastics, paints, medicines and other items.
However, the process is water and energy intensive, and it can release carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
One major application of the nano-confined catalysis concept is the creation of a new type of catalyst that can directly convert carbon monoxide and hydrogen into light olefins without using a lot of water and energy, Bao said. This creates a new path to the efficient industrial development of water－and energy-saving coal chemicals.
In 2016, the journal Science published an article on this work titled "Surprised by Selectivity", which said the new process could become a serious competitor to traditional industrial processes.
Another application of the concept is as a catalyst designed to clean traces of carbon monoxide from hydrogen at room temperature, thus preventing the gas from deactivating the precious metal catalysts found in hydrogen-oxygen fuel cells, Bao said.
"People think that breakthroughs are made by a sudden stroke of genius, but in reality, making discoveries requires the long-term accumulation of knowledge and sharp intuition, so you can spot the tiniest anomalies and design the right experiments to rigorously probe the mechanisms behind them," he added.
Fu Qiang, one of the key researchers behind the project, said dedication and communication are also important for making discoveries. For example, Bao's colleagues and students often contact him late at night to discuss the details of experiments and their results.
With a strong emphasis on attention to detail, basic sciences and communication, Bao's lab has become a cradle of quality chemist, training 125 PhD students and more than 40 post-doctorate researchers.
"China is rich in coal but lacking in petroleum, so the effective and clean conversion of coal and natural gas into chemicals and other products is a matter of national importance," Bao said. "Basic research should target key scientific questions that affect socioeconomic issues." (Text by China Daily)