Dongguan aims for star scientific role

 “Whomever masters materials, masters the future.” 

So states a sign on a wall of the Songshan Lake Materials Laboratory, in the heart of Dongguan’s burgeoning high-tech district. It hints at the ambitions being pursued in this go-getting city, once known as the “workshop of the world”, as it strives to develop a world-class advanced materials industry.

Those ambitions were on full display earlier this month, during the Guangdong Materials Development Forum, which was held at the Dongguan University of Technology. The first time this event has been held outside of Guangzhou in 12 years, it attracted around 600 scientists from all over the country and the world. They included senior academicians from the country’s top-level research institutes, Chinese Academy of Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Engineering, as well as representatives of manufacturers related to the industry, who came to seek development opportunities. 

During the two-day forum, a wide range of ideas and topics were discussed, from the extremely scientific and theoretical, to the most commercially practical.

Sub-forums covered six main areas: photoelectric materials, polymer materials, advanced metal materials, energy and environmental materials, fine chemical materials, and advanced inorganic non-metallic materials. Other discussions focused on applications, such as graphene thin films, 2D/3D/4D printing nanomaterials, color e-paper, and 5G communication key materials.

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Why Dongguan? It might be surprising to learn that this is where the country has planted one of its most far-sighted scientific endeavors. Not far from the forum’s venue, in neighboring Dalang Town, is the China Spallation Neutron Source, a research facility that is unlike anything else in the country. It is China’s first, and the world’s fourth, neutron source facility. It includes a powerful linear proton accelerator, a rapid circling synchrotron, a target station and three neutron instruments. 

For non-scientists, that means it is an advanced device, or devices, used by scientists to conduct experiments into developing new kinds of materials. 

The Songshan Lake Materials Laboratory, meanwhile, is where a cluster of new research and development institutions have been set up, or are in the process of being established. Taken together with the support of the university, these facilities form one of the country’s largest science and technology projects.

 

It should be little surprise, therefore, to learn that Huawei Technologies chose the Songshan Lake district to establish its new R&D campus, as this is where one of the region’s leading scientific “talent magnet” is now situated. Since its opening in 2017, the Songshan Lake Materials Laboratory has attracted 318 full-time senior researchers, including eight academicians of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and 30 winners of the National Outstanding Young Science Foundation award.

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Although it might seem hard to square all of this information with the public image of Dongguan as a factory town, a trip to Songshan Lake will help. Amid rolling green hills and around a picturesque lake, this is where the future of the country’s manufacturing industry is being developed. Dongguan is pouring billions of yuan into developing a “full supply chain” in the advanced materials industry, from research and development to application. Where else would be as appropriate for such a project?

It is not being based here purely for Dongguan’s benefit, however. The Greater Bay Area is still lagging behind Beijing and Shanghai when it comes to basic scientific research. As the project leadership says on its website: “The completion of CSNS will provide a strong support for the scientific and technological innovation and industrial upgrading in the Pearl River Delta region.”

Build it and they will come 

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The project’s ambitions clearly stretch far beyond the Greater Bay Area. “In a few years, it won’t be an accident to run into world-class scientists by Songshan Lake,” says Chen Hesheng, director of the Spallation Neutron Source project and an academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences himself. (Quoted by Nanfang Daily.)

Chen’s project, which officially began experiments in April this year, has been nearly 15 years in the making. 

Site location work began in 2005, and initially it was a toss-up between Zhuhai, Guangzhou’s Luogang district, and the current site. Geological conditions in Zhuhai and Guangzhou were found to be “not ideal”. Dongguan initially offered Songshan Lake, but the Chinese Academy of Sciences ended up choosing Dalang Town for its better geology: close to the mountain, with good bedrock, at a higher level, with less impact of groundwater. Moreover, the nearby expressway at that time was a drawcard, facilitating better equipment transportation and foreign personnel travel. 

The project was formally opened with a State Council announcement in August last year, as China’s first, and only the world’s fourth, pulsed neutron source. As an important tool to detect the microstructure of materials, it has been compared to a “super microscope.” 

Since its launch, the Spallation Neutron Source has been busy. Hundreds of research projects have already been completed, according to the project’s management, including a number from the Chinese Academy of Sciences, the University of Cambridge, the University of Hong Kong, and Sun Yat-sen University. 

According to the project’s plan, the number of spectrometers will be increased, the capacity of the devices will be expanded, and its use will be expanded to more applicants. 

The 5-sq km Songshan Lake Materials Laboratory, meanwhile, has been allocated a total budget of about 12 billion yuan, with 5 billion yuan in the first phase.

The lab has organized more than 40 scientific and technological innovation forums this year. Among them, the “Mainland-Hong Kong frontier science development forum” jointly organized by the Natural science foundation of China and the Beijing-Hong Kong Academic Exchange Center, was held here in early September, attracting nearly 40 well-known scientists from home and abroad.

Three forums have focused on “artificial intelligence and materials science” and “biomedicine and materials science”. These have attracted more than 20 academicians, including Zhao Zhongxian, perhaps China’s most famous scientist, known for his studies on high-temperature superconductivity, as well as 18 high-level research teams.

Another big scientific name walking around here is Chen Dongmin. The executive deputy director of the laboratory spent many years in the United States, studying and teaching at Harvard University, and working in Silicon Valley, before deciding to come to Dongguan. He says he hopes to use the materials lab as a platform to explore “an effective model for technology transfer and transformation”. 

Although the government has invested substantial sums into the project, it is clear that greater private-sector funding will be needed to drive further development in the coming years. This was brought up several times at the recent forum. “Technology and finance promote the development of new material industry” was one of the sub-forums.

Shu Yuan, chairman of Zhongchuang Group, said financing roadshows were in the works, while a “dialogue platform” was being established. “The innovation achievements of scientific and technological talents can be transformed into products, commodities, enterprises, and emerging industries with the support and assistance of venture capital institutions and the financial system,” he said. 

For its part, the organizer of the forum, Dongguan University of Technology, has recently set up a School of Materials Science and Engineering.

“The establishment of the school is not an accident,” said Li Wenfang, the university’s vice president, who has been engaged in teaching and research in the field of material processing engineering for nearly 30 years. “With the development of the materials industry, especially the establishment of big scientific devices, the university believes that it should grasp the opportunity and build earlier rather than later.” 

Despite its short history, the college has made rapid progress, with three undergraduate majors having opened: materials science and engineering, polymer materials, and engineering and metal materials engineering. There are also five research teams based here, covering new energy materials, battery materials, polymer materials, metal materials, and biomedical materials, with a team of nine well-respected PhDs having been recruited so far. 

In addition, the school has planned several major disciplinary research directions, one of which is materials neutron research, which will make extensive use of the Spallation Neutron Source and plans to raise its status to a first-class discipline project at both the provincial and national level within the next five years.

Read more (in Chinese).

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