Changes in orientation - materials science in China

Materials World magazine
1 Jan 2012
Stylised "China flag factory" graphic

China can now boast more materials science papers than any other country, but as we move into 2012, just how far advanced is research and development? Eoin Redahan finds out.

For centuries, Chinese invention nestled in the elegant flourishes of Mandarin. Gunpowder exploded into the world. Printing preceded the screw press. Wayfarers found their way home with the first compass. They even invented a sport called football. But, for a long time, the West remained largely ignorant of these creations.

At least Cai Lun was recognised. In the second century AD, the Chinese Imperial court eunuch cobbled together mulberry, bast fibres, fishnets, hemp and rags to make paper. Two thousand years have passed, and China is still bringing science to paper. According to a recent Reuters report, China has surpassed the USA as the world’s most prolific producer of materials science research papers. In 1981, it produced a mere 50 papers. In the past five years, it has produced 55,003.

The level of investment in science is unprecedented, with R&D funding almost reaching the US$100bln mark in the past five years. Under the Government’s 12th Five-Year Plan, which starts in 2012, investment will rise to 2.2% of GDP. By 2020, it is scheduled to reach 2.5%.

James Wilsden, co-author of China: The Next Science Superpower? says, ‘There is a systematic programme of investment at the top 30–50 Chinese universities, with a view to breaking into the world’s top 300 or 400 universities over the coming years’. China now has two representatives – Peking and Tsinghua – in the top 50 of the world’s top science and technology universities, according to the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings.

‘If you go to each of the big Chinese cities,’ says Phil Coates, Principal of Science Bridges China Collaborations at the University of Bradford, UK, ‘You will find a science and technology bureau that has got enormous investment potential and is already dealing with a load of entrepreneurial opportunities in China. The level of investment is staggering.’

China is also busy sealing links with other countries. Between the last week of November and the first week of December, it inked energy and technology deals with Venezuela and Botswana and a biotechnology pact with Cuba. Closer to home, China has been fostering closer collaboration with the UK. To cite just one example, Coates was part of a workshop in November where eight academics from Bradford University, one from Sheffield University and another from Durham University met with about 20 Chinese counterparts to form collaborative projects to develop advanced materials for healthcare applications.

The shift towards a more international perspective is apparent. According to Coates, research papers must now be published in English and international conferences must also be conducted in English. This has smoothened the grind of cross-cultural collaboration.

Coates, who is also Director at the Polymer Interdisciplinary Research Centre at the University of Bradford, says that while his organisation already has a world-leading position in micromoulding, it has gained a lot from the joint laboratory formed with Sichaun University. He explains that his colleagues at Sichuan University are highly skilled in polymer materials engineering, but less skilled at polymer process structuring. ‘This would be very typical in China,’ he says. ‘Their academic system is more theoretical and less practical in many ways. So there is a joining of strength with our colleagues in China.’

Arguably, China could not have made such lengthy strides in a short period of time were it not for a top-down emphasis. Wilsden explains, ‘[In China], certain institutions get money because they’re favoured by Government policy and strategy documents. Prioritisation and ring fencing of money enables scaling up and collaboration on a grander scale. People squeal with good reason, because that funding is no longer available to the best applicants. So, there’s a difficult balance to strike’.

But will they materialise?

China continues to be stymied by the lack of genuine innovation in materials science. An overseas Chinese materials science professor, who prefers not to be named, explains, ‘In China, although so many people study materials, there are not many original breakthroughs or new discoveries’.

One method of gauging and comparing innovation is reflected in how often a research paper is cited. In the aforementioned Reuters report, China may now be the most prolific producer of materials science research papers, but the impact of these papers is far less profound. It currently lies in sixth place in terms of citation impact. ‘If you follow someone and do better than the first paper,’ the professor explains, ‘then you don’t get so many citations. I have talked to some Chinese people studying materials and they also agree. Most of us just follow the outside – the USA and Japan.’

But, as Wilsden underlines, this approach is understandable, given the size of the Chinese market. ‘What we have is huge numbers of Chinese firms adapting existing technologies, services and platforms for the Chinese market. And it makes sense. With a market of that size, that might be enough. You don’t need the Chinese system to be producing the equivalent of Apple, Google or Microsoft, given the size and scale of the domestic market.’

That said, the lack of creativity has long been a governmental concern. ‘In large parts, there is an overspecification and overengineering of the system,’ Wilsden says. ‘This chokes off the very creativity the system is trying to encourage.’ Undoubtedly, investment has improved resources, but this doesn’t necessarily bolster efficiency.

‘In China, the equipment isn’t bad, especially in the good universities,’ the professor asserts. ‘[Chinese universities] have government support and also locally supported money to buy equipment, whereas my university does not. My university wants a high-resolution transmission electron microscope, but we’ve struggled quite a few years to get it. In China, a lot of good or middle universities have equipment similar to us. Also, the usage of equipment is not as effective as in Western countries because they [staff] don’t allow postgraduate students to operate it. They are afraid of the students damaging the equipment. They don’t train the students. You ask somebody else to operate it, and it’s hard to get a good result.’

The Chinese Government has also been active in addressing the educational landscape. Among its initiatives is the 1,000 People Programme, which brings foreignbased Chinese professors back home to teach. In some cases, professors return in their 40s to teach full-time, whereas others come back on a part-time basis. While he thinks this programme is generally helpful, the professor notes that returning professors are often frustrated by the Chinese system:

‘I know some people have difficulties because the system differs in Western countries. Some of them went back for some time and left again. If you spend one third of your time in China and two-thirds overseas, you don’t really have much time to work. There is a lot more administrative work compared to senior professors in Western countries. If you do not maintain good relations with the dean or the president of the university, then you will not have enough support.’

He adds that bureaucracy and corruption can extend to industry. ‘In big economic programmes, such as high-speed trains, the money is decided by the government and people that control the area. These programmes are difficult to get.’ Admittedly, though, these problems persist in every country on some level. In China’s case, Wilsden notes, ‘When you pump a lot of money into a system and place, with the positives come some perverse side-effects.’

End game

The Chinese Government has outlined several areas that will receive particular attention in the future. Premier Wen Jibao pointed towards accelerated development in areas such as new materials, advanced equipment manufacturing, new energy powered automobiles, biotechnology and IT.

The study of specific materials has also come into sharper focus, according to the Reuters report, with a large volume of papers being released on metal organic frameworks (which could be used for energy storage), electrospun nanofibrous scaffolds (for medical applications) and graphene (due to its advanced properties).

Above all, Coates notes that China will focus its resources on the areas of most relevant concern. ‘China has a population of 1.3bln and that’s rising. They are always concerned about how to handle that. They’re not studying materials for fun. They’re being strategic about where they want things to be developed.’

Linking up such an enormous expanse of land, for example, is a prominent concern. A lot of work is being undertaken on large-scale aerospace and high-speed rail projects, according to the professor. The development of traditional and silicon steels is central to the success of these projects.

Some of these newer large-scale projects involve students, which helps equip them with a practical skill-set. ‘I was recently with a university in the southwest part of China that has a project with the high-speed train. Not only have they designed the control system, but they also study how to use the light metals to replace steel. They found that highstrength aluminium has trouble with corrosion fatigue, and on ductility ageing problems. Their studies are very practical in this regard. But if you don’t use them in their [actual] application in a high-speed train, you will not study that. In Western countries, apart from small groups of people, they do more basic studies for the clear application of materials’.

Even in areas that are not as developed or affluent as Shanghai or Beijing, universities are developing technology specific to their local resources, such as areas rich in magnesium or rare earth materials. In the case of rare earths, the professor explains that China has long been ahead of the game. ‘Even 20, 30 years ago, they started studying rare earth materials and their applications. [Scientists have] put rare earth elements into steels and aluminiums and developed some rare earths for materials, such as hard magnets. Even now, rare earth studies in China are better than overseas because of their resource regions, and they spend more time and have more people to study them. In the hard magnetic materials area, in light emitting materials and in some of the catalyst applications, China’s studies in rare earths have been successful.’

Despite the rapidly expanding breadth of Chinese materials science research, we may not live to see them add to printing, paper, gunpowder, the compass, and football in the list of great Chinese inventions, but as Coates emphasises, progress has been remarkable.

‘They’ve done things much more quickly than we have done in the West. It took us decades to do these things. They have done it within the space of years.’  


Chinese materials science in numbers



The number of Chinese materials science institutions and universities in the world’s top-20 in terms of impact from 2001-2011.


Tsinghua University is China’s highest ranked engineering and technology institution in the latest Times Higher Education World University Rankings 2011-12.


The number of graphene-related research papers released in China from 2004 to May 2011.


The Chinese Academy of Sciences was the world's most cited institution for materials science from 2001-2011.

100 billion

The approximate amount in US dollars spent in Chinese science R&D in the past five years, according to Premier Wen Jibao.

* Unattributed figures courtesy of the Reuters Materials Science and Technology Global Research Report