Prof. Ping Gao’s team wins the Top Award for InternationalExhibition of Inventions of Geneva

2022-04-08

In late March 2022, the annual International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva was wrapped up successfully. On March 28, all participants were notified of the results - except the team led by Prof. Ping Gao at HKUST, who is a researcher specializing in polymer materials.

“With so much work we have put into, don’t we deserve an award even if it is not a Special Merit Award?” Dr. Qi’ao Gu, a member of Prof. Gao’s team recalled. “I could not help sending an email to ask the organizers. When they replied with congratulations and told me that we won the Special Merit Award, a top award, I burst with joy,” he added

 

Prof. Ping Gao shows the polymer nanomembrane

 

Founded in 1973, the International Exhibition of Inventions of Geneva is a large-scale international exhibition sponsored by the Swiss Federal Government and the Municipal Government of Geneva. It is also the earliest, biggest event exclusively devoted to exhibitions in the world. The event presents gold awards, silver awards, and bronze awards. The Special Merit Award goes to the gold award winner with a unanimous vote of  the jury.

 

Amid decades of hard work, freedom is the best incentive.

Prof. Ping Gao’s research career is marked by every decade she has devoted to polymer materials.

 

In 2018, shortly after joining Prof. Gao’s team, Gu happened to meet a senior of the Class of 2013 he had never met before. After chatting for a while, the senior asked, “Is Prof. Gao still working on polyethylene?”

“I said yes. Prof. Gao began to study polyethylene in 1986 when she was a PhD student in the University of Cambridge, and it has been more than 30 years since then. It has been over ten years since she came to HKUST and began to research nanomembrane materials.”

 

Prof. Ping Gao and Dr. Qi’ao Gu demonstrate the polymer nanomembrane

 

There are many ways to motivate researchers. Some universities encourage scholars to publish papers with high bonuses, while HKUST gives them full freedom. “Solving problems takes time, especially for many engineering problems. You cannot work it out merely with a flash of wit. I think it’s great that the school gives you enough time to dig deeper into it and do what you want to do.”

In an environment where the academic freedom of an individual is fully respected, a sound academic atmosphere will be also inherited. Dr. Gu said frankly that when he encountered some research problems in recent years, he would directly ask his seniors for help and advice. They gave him much help and guidance with their rich experience, making his challenging research career a bit easier.

 

“We used to heavily depend on the United States. Now they turn to us for licensed technologies.”

Prof. Ping Gao and Dr. Qi’ao Gu won the award with the program titled the Synthesis Method of Flexible Multi-functional Ultra-thin Polyethylene Membrane with High Porosity. According to a report by the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), China’s technological dependence on the United States in the field of polymer materials ranks third among all fields, following aero-engine and medicine.

The prize, however, means that China has gained complete independence in this regard.

Together with other members,  Prof. Gao has spent more than 10 years developing an ultra-thin nanomembrane, which is not only ultra-thin (only 1/5000 as thick as a human hair) but also is considered to be the strongest polymer nanomembrane in the world. The nanomembrane can be used in some high-precision industries. It can be especially used for water treatment for making ultra-pure water.

 

The polymer nanomembrane developed by Prof. Gao’s team

 

The technology is highly recognized by many giant companies in the world. A few years ago, Millipore tested the samples of the membrane. Now, they want to be licensed for the patent, which indirectly showcases the strong technical ability of Prof. Gao’s team.

In addition to being 25 times stronger than stainless steel with the same mass, this membrane is extremely transparent, gas-permeable, and water-proof with adjustable porous properties, making it suitable for various scenarios.

In the context of COVID-19, transparent masks and artificial lungs are the most valuable applications.

Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone has been wearing masks, which is not convenient for hearing-impaired people who need to communicate via lip reading and facial language. The Canadian government once contacted Prof. Gao’s team about their wish to produce transparent masks which can contain the spread of the virus and also support lip reading. The transparent marks will be used for language education at schools for children with disabilities.

 

The masks made from the new polymer nanomaterial are not only transparent and gas-permeable, but also protect users from viruses and bacteria.

 

Another excellent application is the artificial lung. The lungs of severely ill COVID-19 patients are impaired so seriously that they need an artificial lung to help them breathe. The problem is that an artificial lung costs RMB 1 to 2 million. Moreover, it costs as much as RMB 50,000 to turn on the gas-exchange membrane, one of its core components, for only one second. When the epidemic began, China could not produce such an important machine independently, which was basically monopolized by the United States.

But now, the nanomembrane developed by her team can be used as gas-exchange membranes. Dr. Gu said that the research achievement would be further improved at HKUST (GZ) and put into use as soon as possible.

 

Prof. Ping Gao shows the nanomembrane to Ms. Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of HKSAR

 

“Let’s make some achievements on our campus.”

In recent years, a growing number of universities in Hong Kong have settled down and sought development in Guangzhou and Shenzhen. The newly-built schools and research institutes boast the most advanced equipment and the most favorable environment for scientific research.

HKUST (GZ), which is ready to open soon, is also equipped with first-class research facilities that will better facilitate the development of the Greater Bay Area. For example, large-scale scientific apparatus include the Tianhe-2 developed by the National Supercomputer Center in Guangzhou and the China Spallation Neutron Source in Dongguan, Guangdong Province. Small-scale supporting facilities include microelectronics processing and the customized improvement of laboratory equipment in Shenzhen. With all kinds of advanced equipment available, Dr. Gu looks forward to the new environment for scientific research.

“The (laboratory equipment) industry in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, including small-scale custom-made laboratory equipment, is very mature, and you can have in-depth communication with those people with rich industrial experience. For example, most of the printed circuit boards (PCBs) in the electronic industry are made in Shenzhen. If the project is moved to Guangzhou, the manufacturing efficiency will be very high. It is also quite efficient for us to communicate with manufacturers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen about our needs for customized equipment,” he said.

 

 

HKUST (GZ) will soon set up the first laboratory devoted to ultra-thin polymer membrane materials among Chinese universities. Adhering to the principle of “forward-looking science, prospective application, and social influence”, the laboratory will integrate theoretical molecular design and synthesis, microstructure and properties, as well as macroscopic material preparation and application. Relying on the academic resources of HKUST and its own advantages, the laboratory focuses on three main research directions:

 

  • Universal super-strength and ultra-thin membrane materials
  • High-performance power battery diaphragm materials
  • Polymer membrane human skin/sensor design

 

Currently, the laboratory is divided into three areas, namely synthesis, processing, and characterization, and is equipped with more than 10 sets of equipment worth over RMB 1 million, such as bidirectional film-drawing machine, SEM, TGA, DSC, ultrasonic spraying machine, rheometer, extruder, universal testing machine, FTIR, and Raman. Based in the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao Greater Bay Area, leading China and thinking globally, it will be built into a first-class R&D center devoted to ultra-thin polymer membrane materials.

In addition, the laboratory of HKUST (GZ) pays particular attention to the cross-disciplinary differences. In addition to preparing laboratory equipment for research on polymer materials, Prof. Gao’s team also discusses with professors from various departments about related equipment that may be used, so as to determine the effects of research results in different fields more rapidly and widely. For example, they should consider the materials that the Biology Department needs and the equipment that might be used to test filtration performance by the Environment Department. In this way, everyone can benefit from cross-disciplinary advantages and respond more promptly.

“In the past, other schools had the most advanced equipment, so we might have to do some research there,” Dr. Gu said while mentioning his expectations for the future research life on the Guangzhou Campus. “But now, HKUST (GZ) also has a very solid scientific foundation, and we can make some achievements rapidly on our own campus. That’s what I'm looking forward to,” he added.

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