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China’s new light sources prove it’s serious about funding science

A state-of-the-art synchrotron and free-electron laser are among the country’s new research investments

by Jean-François Tremblay
January 30, 2017 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 95, Issue 5

Drawing shows a large building.
Credit: China Institute of High Energy Physics

This is an artist’s conception of the synchrotron under construction in Beijing.

Government investment in basic scientific research leads to new products and stronger economic growth. Although this argument doesn’t work as well as it used to for scientists seeking public funding in Western countries and Japan, it still does wonders in China. There, funding for basic research is growing, largely on Beijing’s buy-in that it will be good for the economy.

In Dalian, Chinese scientists unveiled earlier this month a new type of free-electron laser that generates extremely bright, short-wavelength light called vacuum ultraviolet. And in Beijing’s Huairou District, China is spending about $750 million on a state-of-the-art synchrotron that will help raise the country’s scientific capabilities and develop new products, Chinese scientists have told their government.

Scheduled to start operating in 2023, the Huairou synchrotron will be a so-called fourth-generation low-emittance synchrotron with the ability to concentrate X-rays into the 10 nm range. The world’s first fourth-generation synchrotron started operating in Sweden in 2015.

“Synchrotrons provide an excellent platform for scientists in the area of materials, biology, chemistry, condensed matter physics, and other fields,” says Yuhui Dong, deputy manager for the planning and construction of the synchrotron. Dong, who is also a professor at the Institute of High Energy Physics in the Chinese Academy of Sciences, says, “The knowledge gained can yield innovative new commercial products.”

Meanwhile, the Dalian free-electron laser, under development since 2012, will allow researchers to “probe the valence structure of all kinds of materials,” according to the Dalian Institute of Chemical Physics, the organization that led development of the instrument. Designed and built on a $30 million budget, the device generates 50- to 200-nanometer wavelengths of light, says Xueming Yang, deputy director of the institute. He says the tool is unlikely to have commercial uses, “but we could make another one and sell it,” he jokes.

At a time when scientists in Japan and Western countries are struggling to get funding, the situation is the opposite in China. Beijing is investing in science with an eye to moving the nation’s economy beyond labor-intensive manufacturing and developing cleaner technologies. It’s also after the prestige that comes with being a world scientific powerhouse.

“China’s GDP [gross domestic product] growth is currently slowing, but our investment in science is growing,” says Jing-Kang Shen, a professor at Shanghai Institute of Materia Medica, one of the country’s leading pharmaceutical research centers. Since 2008, the Chinese government has provided nearly $3 billion to fund work at pharmaceutical institutes such as his as well as small biotech firms, he says.

The Huairou synchrotron’s Dong argues that investing in basic science leads to commercial innovation. Japan, he says, has been particularly good at this, for instance by developing new materials with the help of its synchrotrons.

Scientists in Japan used the Super Photon Ring-8 Gev operated by RIKEN in Hyogo Prefecture to probe how tire rubber works, he says. In November 2015, Sumitomo Rubber Industries disclosed that work it had done with RIKEN at the facility, which is nicknamed SPring-8, had enabled it to develop a new type of rubber for making long-lasting, fuel-efficient tires

A well-developed scientific infrastructure could draw scientists from other countries to China, which would add vibrancy to the local scientific community. Yang, from the laser project in Dalian, says that scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Biophysical Chemistry will set up a base in Dalian to learn how to build a tool similar to the one constructed by the Chinese institute.

But foreign scientists generally do not move to China unless the reasons are compelling, observes Alex Moewes, a professor of physics at the University of Saskatchewan. “I avoid going to China because of the air pollution,” says Moewes.

Worldwide, there are about 60 synchrotrons running or nearing completion. Whether scientists will want to go to Beijing depends on the demonstrated performance of the new equipment, Moewes says.

China’s promotion of basic research is part of a government vision to turn China into a scientific power, says Deqing Zhang, director of Beijing’s Institute of Chemistry at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “The government wants innovative research, and it is giving us the tools to do it.” 

CORRECTION: This story was updated on Feb. 16, 2017, to correct the name of one of the fields served by synchrotrons. It is condensed matter physics, not condensed metaphysics.



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