Modern Marco Polos: ATBEST secondment in China

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In this blog, Early Stage Researcher Fabio De Rosa from QUB provides details of his recent secondment in China

Chinese philosopher Laozi used to say that “a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step”. In our case it started with a very long flight.

Figure 1 – It’s a long way from Belfast to China

Figure 1 – It’s a long way from Belfast to China

It was November 2015 when Miss Natasha McKee, Mr Ahmed Ibrahim Osman Ahmed and myself left Northern Ireland to join our colleague Ms Jing-xiao Liang and Professor David Rooney in the most populous country in the world. The two destinations of this 3-weeks long adventure were the capital, Beijing, and the city of Harbin, famous for its International Ice and Snow Sculpture Festival.

Figure 2 – Entrance of the Beijing Institute of Technology

Figure 2 – Entrance of the Beijing Institute of Technology

Figure 3 – Harbin Institute of Technology’s campus and the Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland, made famous by the TV series Games of Thrones. Can you see the resemblance?

Figure 3 – Harbin Institute of Technology’s campus and the Dark Hedges in Northern Ireland, made famous by the TV series Games of Thrones. Can you see the resemblance?

We were hosted in both cities by Professor Kening Sun and his team. Professor Sun is the dean of the School of Chemical Engineering and Environment in Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) (Figure 2), and the director of the Institute of Basic and Interdisciplinary Science and Institute of Chemical and Energy Materials in Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) (Figure 3). He mainly carries out research on solid oxide fuel cells (SOFC) in the low-temperature range, lithium ion batteries, super-capacitors and other research into electrochemical energy storage systems.

Sad but true, the first thing a stranger notices in China is the infamous air pollution. Experts agree by saying that breathing Beijing air for a day is equal to smoking 40 cigarettes [1]. Since I am not even a smoker, I tried to wear a mask as much as possible when outdoor, as many Chinese and foreigners do (Figure 4).

Figure 4 – In case you wonder: no, that is not fog

Figure 4 – In case you wonder: no, that is not fog

The timing of the secondment was not particularly lucky, considering that a red alert about air quality, the highest possible warning level, was issued on 7th December 2015 and lasted until the end of the week. After some limits were placed on car use and some factories were ordered to stop operations [2], the difference in the air quality was quite noticeable (Figure 5 and Figure 8).

Figure 5 – Before and after the red alert day in December 2015 from the same window

Figure 5 – Before and after the red alert day in December 2015 from the same window

After a first-hand experience of what heavy pollution means, China’s contemporary goal possibly made even more sense to me: change the coal-based industry exploiting either the rich natural gas resources of the country in the Heilongjiang Province [3] or renewable biogas. Both ways could effectively minimize the difference between power supply and demand, reduce at the same time the carbon, nitrogen and sulphur emissions from power stations and houses, and ultimately mitigate the greenhouse effect and air pollution.

Despite what one might think, Chinese government invested heavily to support the biogas field development starting from early 2000s, and by the end of 2020 the plan is to have around 80 million household plants with an annual production of 45 billion m3 [4].

Figure 6 – micro Combined Heat and Power generation unit
Figure 6 – micro Combined Heat and Power generation unit

The potentials for the biogas market in China are huge and one possible application of SOFC for natural gas/biogas exploitation is in micro Combined Heat and Power generation unit (micro-CHP). Such a system is depicted in Figure 6 and allows for decentralized power generation in rural areas, combined heat and power generation in the 1-3 kW range with higher efficiency, carbon savings in the case of renewable biogas since no fossil fuel is employed and creation of smart grids, which are eligible for feed-in tariffs from the local government.

These are the reasons why for the whole three weeks we worked on the development of a heat-integrated natural gas/biogas reformer, able to produce 8 slm of H2 to feed a SOFC-based micro-CHP unit designed in HIT. The process involved the formulation and characterization of new catalytic materials via TEM, XPS, BET, XRD, and the likes.

At the same time we had a chance to improve our knowledge about fuel cells, batteries, Selective Catalytic Reduction (SCR) systems for nitrogen oxides abatement in stationary applications and were involved in the preparation and testing of catalysts for the hydro-desulphurization of crude oil.

Apart from pure science, it was interesting to discuss about the ATBEST project and the biogas field in China with local experts like Dr. Xin Hongchuan, associate professor of Qingdao Institute of Bioenergy and Bioprocess Technology (QIBEBT), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS).

What I have noticed is that in BIT there is a great interest in teaching programs in English, and in welcoming Queen’s University Belfast students. From 2003 to 2014 the School of Chemical Engineering and Environment sent nearly 100 graduates to QUB to finish their master’s degree, and 13 of them obtained doctor’s degree. More than 30 people participated in bilateral visits and teachers exchanges [5]. These statistics clearly have to be updated after our journey.

President and vice-chancellor of Queen’s University Belfast, Patrick Johnston, visited Beijing Institute of Technology (BIT) too on August 2014 and reviewed the cooperation history between two universities [6].

The far-east represents one of the largest markets in the world for international students and Queen’s is expanding also in Shenyang through the China Queen’s College, also known as China Medical University – The Queen’s University of Belfast Joint College. Professor David Rooney is the director of research at the Centre for the Theory and Application of Catalysis (CenTACat) in QUB and the vice-dean of the new college.

The new-born college represents a great opportunity for Queen’s to enhance the University’s profile through a physical presence in China, it is its first foreign joint campus abroad and the students are taught pharmaceutical science jointly by staff from Queen’s and the China Medical University, one of China’s top ranked universities for health sciences [7].

Figure 7 – From left to right: Ms Jing-xiao Liang, myself, Mr Tim Losty, Professor David Rooney, Mr Ahmed Ibrahim Osman Ahmed and Miss Natasha McKee

Figure 7 – From left to right: Ms Jing-xiao Liang, myself, Mr Tim Losty, Professor David Rooney, Mr Ahmed Ibrahim Osman Ahmed and Miss Natasha McKee

During our stay in the capital of the world’s fastest growing economy we could not miss an interesting meeting with Mr Tim Losty, Counsellor for Northern Ireland Bureau in China (Figure 7). He was previously operative in Washington, USA, and he had his first contacts with China back in 2012 when he helped to organise the visit of Chinese Vice-Premier Madame Liu Yandong to Northern Ireland.

The Bureau’s goals are to develop and maintain effective relationships with the government of the People’s Republic of China, increase trade and investment between Northern Ireland and China, strengthen bilateral Science and technology collaboration and encourage Chinese students to enrol at NI universities. [8]

It might seem an easy task, but it is not. According to Mr Losty, most of the time western people don’t know enough about China and its different culture. Moreover the language barrier and the massive bureaucracy that surrounds getting products into market cannot be forgotten [9].

Losty agreed that increasing trade and students exchanges between Northern Ireland and China is the way to go, enhancing cooperation in culture, sports and tourism and promoting the understanding of Chinese culture and language. [10]

Language is actually an important barrier and from this point of view China reminded me of Italy: except for the academic environment and the smart clerks from the silk market, common people do not speak English at all. Luckily Ms Liang was with us most of the time, teaching us how to pronounce correctly a few words like 牛肉饺子 (Niúròu jiǎozi). Should I be alone again in China, at least I will be able to enjoy delicious beef dumplings!

The food was great indeed, although quite spicy sometimes, but Chinese hospitality is even nicer. We were treated absolutely well, never left alone and, we found out with great surprise, that Chinese people can be very sociable, especially when it comes to toasting!

Overall it has been a great experience getting exposed to a different culture and scientific community which in the end is not that far from us, just as far as a long flight can be.

Figure 8 – The amazing great wall of China. No pollution over there

Figure 8 – The amazing Great Wall of China. No pollution there!

References

[1] – http://www.dailymail.co.uk/sciencetech/article-3201954/Breathing-Beijing-s-air-equivalent-smoking-FORTY-cigarettes-day-Smog-map-China-reveals-shocking-extent-pollution.html

[2] – http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-china-35026363

[3] – https://fuelcellsworks.com/archives/2010/10/10/harbin-institute-of-technology-sun-kening-research-team-successfully-developed-low-temperature-solid-oxide-fuel-cell-2/

[4] – https://www.dbfz.de/fileadmin/user_upload/Vortraege/BiogasWorld2014/02_Jiming.pdf

[5] – http://english.bit.edu.cn/NewsEvents/BITNews/100433.htm

[6] – http://english.bit.edu.cn/NewsEvents/BITNews/104808.htm

[7] – http://thepienews.com/news/queens-university-belfast-to-launch-china-campus/

[8] – https://www.ofmdfmni.gov.uk/articles/ni-bureau-china

[9] – http://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/business/big-interview/people-here-speak-from-the-heart-the-chinese-appreciate-that-34227710.html

[10] – http://english.cri.cn/6826/2013/05/14/2702s764761.htm

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