Xinhua Headlines: Hunting down PM 2.5 sources with self-developed "eyes"

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By Xinhua writers Guo Ying, Quan Xiaoshu, Zhou Qiang

GUANGZHOU, May 2 (Xinhua) -- Zhou Zhen and his team are busy "observing the invisible" in a lab. When an air sample passes through the instrument, its monitoring screen displays an analysis of its PM 2.5, or fine particulate matter in air pollution.

Zhou, 50, has focused on the research and use of the mass spectrometer for more than 20 years. He is the Head of Institute of Mass Spectrometry and Atmospheric Environment in Jinan University, Guangdong Province. He won the National May 1 Labor Medal in 2019 for his contribution to this field.

The mass spectrometer is a high-end analytical instrument that identifies the chemical constitution of a substance and is widely used in fields such as environmental monitoring, petrochemical and medicine.

"If a machine is a tool for mankind to transform the world, then mass spectrometers are our 'eyes' to understand the world," Zhou explained.


After studying and working in labs in the United States and Germany, Zhou returned to China in 2002, and found it almost completely dependent on imported mass spectrometers.

He made up his mind to develop Chinese mass spectrometers. He established Guangzhou Hexin Instrument Co., Ltd. in 2004, starting with just five staff in a 50-square-meter lab.

"We were really struggling at first because it was very hard to secure investment. Very few investors knew the potential of the technology and it required a long development cycle, which meant it was impossible to make a quick profit," Zhou said.

Another difficulty was that some electronic components and mechanical parts failed to withstand the harsh requirements.

"The mass spectrometer is an embodiment of advanced manufacturing, with more than 800 different components, and requires techniques of multiple disciplines. Sometimes we had to spend time training upstream companies for more precision components," Zhou said.


With China's intensifying efforts to fight pollution, Zhou's team has focused on developing mass spectrometers for environmental monitoring.

After 10 years of research and development, the company's single particle aerosol mass spectrometer went on the market and was first used in Guangdong Environmental Monitoring Center for on-line source apportionment of PM 2.5.

"Not only can it identify the air pollutant, it also monitors the sources of the pollutant with precision. It can even tell the proportion of the pollution sources, whether from cars, dust or industrial production," Zhou said.

Now it is used in more than 100 cities throughout the country, offering technical support for determining the status and sources of pollution.

"Compared with traditional methods, the equipment can dynamically reflect the changes of pollution sources in real time and is estimated to save 10 billion yuan (about 1.49 billion U.S. dollars) annually in China's pollution prevention and control," Zhou said.

In July last year, China released a three-year action plan on air pollution control, determining to "win the battle for blue skies" by adopting economic, legal, technological and administrative means together.

According to the plan, PM 2.5, a key indicator of air pollution, will be closely monitored, indicating greater opportunities for the high-precision monitoring equipment industry.

Although China is narrowing the gap in mass spectrometer development, it still has a long way to go, Zhou said.

"China is estimated to spend around 10 billion yuan annually in purchasing mass spectrometers and almost 98 percent are imported. We hope self-developed mass spectrometers will have 20 percent of the market share in 10 years," Zhou said.


China vowed to pursue innovation-driven development, and explored setting up coordinated and efficient platforms to integrate basic and applied research and industrialization.

Guangdong, which accounted for about 10 percent of China's GDP in 2018, was among the first places in the country to pilot reforms to boost innovation, including measures to incentivize the commercialization of R&D findings.

The southern province now has more than 40,000 big high-tech firms. Last year 250 billion yuan was invested in R&D in Guangdong.

As the importance of developing state-of-the-art scientific instruments is emphasized, Guangzhou Hexin Instrument Co., Ltd. has received support from national projects including major scientific equipment development projects. In 2018, the company's sales revenue reached 130 million yuan, 50 percent up on the previous year. It now ranks among the 20 top global mass spectrometer companies.

In 2017, a U.S. research institution planned to buy a real-time single particle aerosol mass spectrometer on the global market. Zhou's company won the order as it was among the very few companies in the world capable of mass-production. It opened the China-made high-end mass spectrometer to world recognition.

With local government support, the company is building an industrial base that will be operating this year. It will integrate research and development, manufacturing, sales and technical services.

Zhou is excited to know that more than 10 mass spectrometer companies have emerged in China.

"We can promote the development of the mass spectrometer industry together and I hope the new base will help create a more complete industrial chain," Zhou said.

As a professor at Jinan University, Zhou has taught dozens of postgraduates in this field. He believes the systematic nurturing of talent is vital for China's development of high-end scientific instruments and hopes more scientists and entrepreneurs can work in the mass spectrometer field. Enditem

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