Zhou Zhen (sitting) checks data with staff members at Guangzhou Hexin Instrument Co in Guangdong province. (PHOTO / XINHUA)
Zhou Zhen and his team are busy "observing the invisible" in a lab. When an air sample passes through their mass spectrometer, the instrument's screen displays an analysis of its PM 2.5 content, the fine particulate matter found in polluted air.
Zhou has focused on the research and use of mass spectrometers for more than 20 years.
The 50-year-old scientist, who is head of the Institute of Mass Spectrometry and Atmospheric Environment at Jinan University in Guangdong province, won this year's National May 1 Labor Medal for his contribution to the field.
The mass spectrometer, a high-end analytical instrument that identifies the chemical constitution of a substance, is widely used in fields such as environmental monitoring, petrochemicals 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 said.
A tough start
After studying and working in the United States and Germany, Zhou returned to China in 2002. He was disappointed to discover that the country's labs were almost completely dependent on imported mass spectrometers.
In response, he decided to develop Chinese-made mass spectrometers. In 2004, he founded Guangzhou Hexin Instrument Co, starting with just five staff members in a 50-square-meter lab.
"We really struggled at first because it was very hard to secure investment. Very few investors understood the technology's potential 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 meet the stiff requirements.
"The mass spectrometer is the embodiment of advanced manufacturing - it has more than 800 different components and requires techniques of multiple disciplines. Sometimes we had to spend time training upstream companies to obtain precision components," Zhou said.
Zhou inspects scientific equipment in a laboratory. (PHOTO / XINHUA)
China's intensifying efforts to fight pollution have seen Zhou's team focus on the development of 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 by the Guangdong Environmental Monitoring Center to apportion sources 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, the instrument is used in more than 100 cities nationwide, offering technical support to scientists attempting to determine the levels 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 (US$1.5 billion) annually in China's pollution prevention and control," Zhou said.
In July, the country released a three-year action plan on the control of air pollution. The plan aims to "win the battle for blue skies" by the simultaneous adoption of economic, legal, technological and administrative measures.
Under the plan, PM 2.5, a key indicator of air pollution, will be closely scrutinized, which will lead to greater opportunities for the nation's high-precision monitoring equipment industry.
Although the country is narrowing the gap in the development of mass spectrometers, there is still a long way to go, Zhou said.
"China is estimated to spend around 10 billion yuan annually to purchase mass spectrometers, and almost 98 percent are imported. We hope self-developed mass spectrometers will hold market share of 20 percent within 10 years," he added.
Having vowed to pursue innovation-driven development, China is exploring the establishment of coordinated, efficient platforms to integrate basic and applied research and industrialization.
Guangdong, which accounted for about 10 percent of national GDP last year, was one of 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 is now home to more than 40,000 big high-tech companies, and last year it attracted investment of 250 billion yuan in R&D.
Zhou poses for a photo with his teacher Alexander F. Dodonov (left), an expert in time-of-flight mass spectrometry, at a laboratory in Justus Liebig University, Giessen, Germany, in 2000. (PHOTO / XINHUA)
Thanks to the growing importance of the development of state-of-the-art scientific instruments, Guangzhou Hexin Instrument has received support from national programs, including major scientific equipment development projects.
The company's sales revenue reached 130 million yuan last year, a 50 percent rise from 2017, and it ranks among the top 20 global mass spectrometer companies.
In 2017, a research institution in the United States wanted to buy a real-time single-particle aerosol mass spectrometer on the global market. Zhou's company won the order because it was one of the few in the world capable of mass-producing the instrument.
Its success brought global recognition for Chinese-made high-end mass spectrometers.
With support from the Guangdong government, the company is building an industrial base that will integrate R&D, manufacturing, sales and technical services. It will begin operations this year.
Zhou is excited 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 to create a more complete industrial chain," he said.
As a professor at Jinan University, Zhou has taught dozens of postgraduates in the field. He believes the systematic nurturing of talent is vital for China's development of high-end scientific instruments, and he hopes more scientists and entrepreneurs will join him in the battle against pollution.
HONG KONG NEWS