Essays on Science and SocietyGLOBAL VOICES OF SCIENCE

Ascent of Nanoscience in China

Science  01 Jul 2005:
Vol. 309, Issue 5731, pp. 61-63
DOI: 10.1126/science.1115172
Chunli Bai China

Chunli Bai, executive vice president of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), shifted his research orientation from x-ray crystallography to the field of scanning tunneling microscopy while conducting his research work at Caltech as a visiting scholar in 1985. As the chief scientist of the China National Steering Committee for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and the director of the China National Center for Nanoscience and Technology, he has been instrumental in furthering China's nanotechnology research both as a scientist and a policy-maker. He works with his colleagues and many of his graduate students on molecular nanostructures. He was elected a member of CAS and a Fellow of the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World (TWAS) in 1987. He is a recipient of the International Medal awarded by the Society of Chemical Industry (London-based) and delivered the TWAS 2002 Medal Lecture in Chemical Sciences. He has also won several awards and prizes conferred by the Chinese government and foundations and universities in Hong Kong.


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The three most widely used high-tech words in China now are “computer,” “gene,” and “nanometer,” according to the China Association for Science and Technology. The ability to utter these words, of course, does not guarantee that the speaker understands their meanings and implications. I witnessed an episode that illustrates the point. A news reporter asked a woman he was interviewing for a story about nanotechnology if she had ever heard the term “nanometer.” “Yes,” the lady answered. But when the reporter asked her what she thought the word meant, the woman replied that it might denote a special kind of rice. She was in fact drawing upon her knowledge of the language. In Chinese, the word for “meter” has two meanings: One refers to the unit of length, and the other means rice. The woman's misunderstanding of the term “nanometer,” in this case, is more amusing than concerning. But as nanoscience and nanotechnology become ever more consequential in our lives, we in the scientific community need to better inform and educate the public about the transformations this new nano era is likely to bring.

Along with its fast economic growth, China has embraced a national strategy for rejuvenating the country through education and science and technology. This strategy attaches importance to both fundamental research and the development of technologies that are critical to social and economic development. Among the fields that have enjoyed particularly rapid development in China in the past decade are nanoscience and nanotechnology. These terms refer to the growing knowledge base and technical framework for understanding and manipulating matter on nanometer scales ranging from the atomic to the cellular. Like many other countries, we in China expect that the development of nanoscience and nanotechnology will greatly affect many areas of scientific research and industrial development, and many aspects of everyday life. In time, we hope no one in China will think of rice when they hear the word “nanometer.”

Nanoscience Takes Root

When the concept of nanoscience and nanotechnology was first introduced in the 1980s, it was received favorably in China. The initial interest was in part stimulated by the development of new tools and techniques for observing materials on the nanoscale, especially scanning probe microscopes (SPMs). Early explorations by Chinese scientists using scanning tunneling microscopes (STMs) and other types of SPMs helped build excitement about nanoscience and nanotechnology and led to visions of new techniques for revealing nanostructures and the novel properties that these structures can lead to.

Soon after the concept began trickling through the scientific ranks, the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC), and the State Science and Technology Commission (SSTC) began funding nanoscience-related work and activities. Among the specific areas that received this early support were the development of scanning tunneling microscopy, then a groundbreaking technique for viewing the atomic and molecular landscapes of materials' surfaces, and nanomaterials research, in which investigators aim to engineer the optical, electronic, and other properties of materials by precisely controlling the structures' anatomy on the nanometer scale.

China also has helped those who work in nanoscience and nanotechnology to develop their sense of being part of a new research and development (R&D) community. Since 1990, for example, dozens of international and domestic conferences in the field have been held in China, including important early gatherings like the 7th International Conference on Scanning Tunneling Microscopy (1993) and the 4th International Conference on Nanometer-Scale Science and Technology (1996). These meetings, both held in Beijing, addressed a wide range of topics in nanoscience and nanotechnology and attracted wide attention and public interest.

In the 1990s, support for the development of nanoscience and nanotechnology increased substantially, largely through several major initiatives. In 1990, for example, SSTC launched the nearly decade-long “Climbing Up” project on nanomaterial science. In 1999, the Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST), whose predecessor was the SSTC, started a national basic research project entitled “Nanomaterial and Nanostructure” and has been funding basic research on nanomaterials, such as nanotubes, ever since. Our country's National High Technology Plan, which encompasses many categories of technology, has included a series of projects for nanomaterial applications. From 1990 to 2002 alone, nearly 1000 such projects (with a total funding of about $27 million) were implemented. In addition, during this period, NSFC approved nearly 1000 grants for small-scale projects in related areas. The scope of support was also greatly expanded to include specific areas such as nanodevices, nanobiology and medicine, detection and characterization, theory, modeling, and simulation.

Operatic nanoscience.

Now under construction in Beijing, China's new National Opera Hall features self-cleaning glass coated with a film of photocatalytic nanoparticles that can break down dirt.


With so much going on in nano-related R&D in so many different places in China, we created in 2000 the National Steering Committee for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology to oversee national policy and planning in these arenas. The committee was set up, among other organizations, by MOST, the State Development and Planning Commission, the Ministry of Education, CAS, the Chinese Academy of Engineering, and the NSFC.

Moving forward in nanoscience and nanotechnology requires a particularly wide spectrum of skills and knowledge. As such, a number of interdisciplinary research centers have been established to promote and facilitate collaborations between various institutions in a particular region by sharing of resources. The demand for multidisciplinary research platforms with components assembled from academia and industry and that also have educational functions has become especially strong in recent years. According to incomplete statistics, more than 50 universities, 20 institutes of CAS, and over 300 industry enterprises have engaged in nanoscience and nanotechnology R&D, with the involvement of more than 3000 researchers from different institutes, universities, and enterprises across China. The newly established National Center for Nanoscience and Technology in Beijing and the National Center for Nanoengineering in Shanghai are important additions to the list.

Nanoscience Sends Out Branches Of all the major topical areas of nanoscience and nanotechnology now being pursued by investigators in China, nanomaterials research has taken center stage.

A good representative of this fast-moving field is the family of nanomaterials known as carbon nanotubes (CNTs). These all-carbon tubes are just a few nanometers in diameter, which makes them comparable in girth to DNA molecules, and come in either singlewalled varieties or multiwalled varieties with a nesting of carbon shells resembling the structure of a retractable antenna. The research group led by Sishen Xie at the Institute of Physics, one of CAS's many institutes in Beijing, invented a template-based growth method in 1996, by which both the diameter of multiwalled carbon nanotubes and the growth direction could be controlled. These features are important because they determine the properties and technological potential of these materials. In another development, a group led by Shoushan Fan at Tsinghua University made yarns out of carbon nanotubes. After appropriate heat treatment, these pure CNT yarns should eventually be able to be woven into a variety of macroscopic objects for different applications, such as bulletproof vests and materials that block electromagnetic waves.

Even traditional materials, such as copper, can be transformed when recast with nanoscience and nanotechnology in mind. A group led by Ke Lu at the Institute of Metal Research, yet another CAS institute, discovered in 2002 the superplastic property of nanostructured copper. The metal, with its nanoscale grains that are far finer than the grains of which standard copper is composed, can be elongated at room temperature to more than 50 times its original length without breaking. In 2004, Lu's group discovered another kind of nanocopper phenomenon, so-called copper growth twins, which is a specific type of crystalline microstructure. Copper with these nanoscale structural motifs has a tensile strength about 10 times as high as that of its conventional counterpart, while retaining electrical conductivity comparable to that of pure copper.

In the arena of inorganic materials, Dongyuan Zhao and his colleagues at Fudan University demonstrated a general synthetic strategy for creating stable multicomponent materials—such as mixed metal phosphates, mixed metal oxides, and metal borates—featuring a variety of porous structures. Such materials could lead to new families of catalysts, environmental filtration devices, and other technologies that rely on molecular interactions occurring in tiny nanoscale spaces. A morphological control approach was reported to selectively form SBA-15, a well-known silica-based material harboring a highly ordered hexagonal arrangement of nanoscale pores.

I, too, have been part of the nanoscience movement in China. My foray into this field began in 1985 when I first gained access to an ultrahigh-vacuum scanning tunneling microscope at the California Institute of Technology in the laboratory of John D. Baldeschwieler. I continued to work in the field after returning to CAS's Institute of Chemistry in Beijing, where I set up my own research group in 1987. With a homemade set of sophisticated tools—including a scanning tunneling microscope, an atomic force microscope (a variant of the STM), a ballistic electron emission microscope, and a scanning near-field optical microscope—my colleagues and I were able to join the nanoscience pioneers in China. In 1994, my group became known as the CAS Youth Laboratory of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and then in 2001 expanded to become the CAS Key Laboratory of Molecular Nanostructure and Nanotechnology. It now has more than 40 researchers and graduate students. With the return of several distinguished investigators from the United States, Japan, and Germany, the scope of research in the laboratory now includes the design and preparation of molecular nanostructures, novel nanomaterials, molecular nanodevices, single-molecule detection methods, and the development of techniques for characterizing nanoscale structures.

Even with all of this ongoing activity, the amount of support in China for nanoscience and nanotechnology is relatively small compared with that in the developed economies. In the United States, for example, an estimated $3 billion for nano-related research was earmarked by the government from 2001 to 2004 through the National Nanotechnology Initiative, a sum more than matched by venture capital. The figure for government funding in China now stands at about $160 million. Even so, the scientific output of Chinese nanoscientists is becoming ever more significant. According to the Scientific Citation Index, CAS ranked fourth in the world in total number of citations among those institutions and universities that published more than 100 nanotechnology papers from 1992 to 2002.* Another recent analysis of nanoscience productivity around the world ranked China at the top for the first 8 months of 2004. This should not give the Chinese research community reason to be overly optimistic, however. The volume of published papers and total number of citations is only one indicator of the value of research. Another is the impact, or the number of citations per paper. From 2001 to 2003, the number of citations per nanotechnology paper published by scientists in the United States, Germany, Japan, and China was about 6.56, 4.54, 3.7, and 2.28, respectively, even though this figure for some Chinese research groups is much higher than the average. Another metric of innovation and activity in technological development is the number of patents awarded. As it turns out, the total number of patents acquired by China is far behind that of the developed economies. This is due both to a lack of technological innovation and to an insufficient amount of attention devoted to issues such as intellectual property protection.

To move forward and become more competitive in nanoscience and nanotechnology, China needs to continue to expand its now-limited research infrastructure. For example, there are too few nanoscale fabrication facilities for the role our country hopes to play in this new R&D arena. In some areas, such as nanoscale devices with novel electronic and optoelectronic features, efforts to consolidate resources to tackle key technological issues are under way. Efforts have also been made to pursue industrial-scale production of nanomaterials, such as carbon nanotubes, polymeric nanocomposites, and nanoparticle materials, with the intention of opening up opportunities for new businesses to sprout and grow.

Caveat Emptor

As China and many other countries embrace and develop nanoscience and nanotechnology, some are finding opportunities to exploit the novelty and public ignorance about these developments. Recall the woman who thought the word “nanoscience” referred to a kind of rice. Because of the sudden popularity that the term “nano” enjoys, some firms in China have been finding that they can raise their profits simply by adding the label “nano” to their products. We have heard of products such as nano-gas, nanocups, nano-toothpaste, nano-beer, to name just a few. A few years ago, someone in Guangzhou in the south of China claimed that he had the know-how to produce nano-water. A few cups a day could prolong one's life, he claimed. He managed to fool a few investors, but he was ultimately exposed and punished by the local government.

The nano-water episode provides a cautionary tale for the regulatory communities and national and international standards organizations, which need to create and establish standardization and accreditation systems for nano products. In China, the effort to establish measurement standards for nanostuctures has resulted in the initiation of a national technical committee on nanotechnology standardization. Its work resulted this past February in the issuing of seven National Standardizations for Nanomaterials. Early in 2004, a special national committee was set up for laboratory accreditation under the auspices of the China National Board for Laboratories. This official body is charged with strengthening the inspection of research facilities in public institutions and with meeting the needs of manufacturers in China. These are necessary actions, given the imminent introduction of more and more commercial nano products into markets. The protection of public health also is of concern as the nanotechnology era unfolds. That is why safety assessment of nanomaterials, especially those intended for pharmaceutical use, is also being carefully carried out. As they are elsewhere in the world, toxicology studies are being conducted in a number of institutions, including CAS, Beijing University, and the Chinese Academy of Medical Sciences.

Tiling with molecules.

With his colleagues, Chunli Bai is exploiting molecules' own tendencies to self-organize. (Left) A scanning tunneling microscope (STM) image reveals porphyrin molecules that have arranged themselves on a graphite surface. (Right) STM image shows metallacyclic molecules self-assembled on gold. The shape of one of these molecules is shown in a schematic (green). New types of catalysts, information-storage devices, and chemical sensors are among the potential applications of such self-assembled molecular structures.§

The nanoscience and nanotechnology community in China has made remarkable advances across the R&D spectrum, from fundamental scientific research to studies into the potential societal implications of new nanotechnologies. China still has a long way to go to improve the overall competitiveness of its nanoscience and nanotechnology enterprise, but all of the signs that I can see suggest it will become a leading contributor in the coming years.



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