Zongyou Yin: Sometimes in molecular science you need to think big

18 December 2017

Material chemists can often spend years researching one molecule. Scientists have built careers on understanding and manipulating a single compound. Yet, even in this field, sometimes you have to think big. That is exactly what the new arrival to the Research School of Chemistry, Zongyou Yin is doing.

Zongyou has had an interest in the applications of material science for years now, having travelled to different parts of the world to pursue his scientific passion.

“I got my PhD in Singapore, and Nanyang Technical University,” Zongyou explains. “I then worked in Singapore for several years, before moving to MIT in The United States. In MIT I worked for over 3 years, and then during that time in Boston I also worked a Harvard University for one year.

“During these post-docs, I worked in hydrogen fuel. I used a special catalyst to take the hydrogen from methanol, doing so in a way that was different from traditional steam reforming. In steam reforming they convert methanol to hydrogen, but there is a couple downsides, in particular the emissions that come from the process. At MIT, I developed a kind of special catalyst and using light to shine on this catalyst I could convert methanol to hydrogen, but without carbon dioxide emissions.

“The second project I worked on was in 2D materials. For 2D materials, the biggest issue is that they are not always stable, meaning the performance endurance will degrade with time. To prevent this degradation we grew a molecule to form a monolayer, which formed a layer to protect the 2D material. This allows us to stabilise many 2D materials, meaning we can make 2D materials robust when using them in an application.”

Zongyou says this work highlights the capacity of materials science to take research on individual molecules or compounds and turn them into real applications. Coming to the ANU in August 2017, he aims to pursue this through three large, and very ambitious, projects.

“The first project is in solar hydrogen fuel,” he explains. “I want to use solar -- free energy -- to convert water, or an organic material, to hydrogen fuel. In doing so I would be taking out hydrogen atoms and transforming them into hydrogen molecules. The hydrogen molecules that are removed can in turn be used as fuel, for example in fuel cells for cars. So far the issue with this approach is the cost effectiveness for this kind of catalyst. I need to work out how to increase the efficiency and lower the cost, making it more viable.

“The second direction is a focus on climate change, and I would like to convert carbon dioxide into liquid fuel. This research target is a zero carbon emission fuel. There is a lot of carbon dioxide in the world, in air, and through this project I would convert this to a liquid fuel, and then the liquid fuel can be used it as a fuel. After burning the carbonised fuel again, the carbon can be reworked back into fuel. It's a closed cycle with no carbon emissions.

“This third research direction is for the development of a wearable device for health monitoring or prediction. For example, I want to look at a device that can help patients with diabetes. To diagnose blood sugar levels, normally people will have to take out blood. This device will require no blood. The person instead can use a wearable device to analyse the bio marker from skin perspiration or from breathing to tell patients what is happening with their blood sugar level.”

While this sounds very ambitious, Zongyou has already hit the ground running after starting at the ANU. He already thinks the ANU is the perfect place to do this work.

“My deep impression of the ANU is that it is the perfect place to develop collaborations at different levels. First is at the school level. This school is quite good, with academics coming from different research areas, which can help with my material chemistry. There are not so many people who do material science for example, but there are some great people who do organic materials. We will definitely be able to work together.  The university level is also very strong. I’ve met with more than 20 professors around university campus, because I want to try to explore opportunities for collaborations.

“The research environment is great, and the living environment, living conditions are quite good. Not big, but big enough. It's quite comfortable and I am happy here.”