Sustainability-related Research

As an international research university, HKUST has clear positioning as a focused elite research and education institution with an international outlook, emphasizing interdisciplinary studies, entrepreneurial spirit and innovation, The University's achievements in research facilitate the transformation of discoveries into sustainable solutions.

In 2014-15, 69 environment-related research projects were conducted at HKUST, gaining over HK$50 million in funding. The scope of these projects covered a wide range of environmental issues including renewable energy production, wastewater treatment, food waste management, air quality, climate change, sewage treatment, green building, green transportation, green communications and others.

Highlights from the year

New Discovery for Renewable Energy Development

Develops Materials for Record Efficiency Polymer Solar Cells

Situated in Clearwater Bay peninsular, there is sufficient sunlight in the summer to power us. But how can we produce solar cells that are low-cost and environmentally-friendly? The good news is our research team has developed a family of polymer and fullerene materials that enabled multiple cases of high-efficiency polymer solar cells. The team, led by Prof He Yan of the Department of Chemistry, discovered a material design motif that led to three new polymers and over ten high-performance material combinations yielding solar cell efficiencies of up to 10.8%, a new record for single-junction polymer solar cells.

Traditional solar cells made from silicon are heavy, rigid, expensive and complicated to produce. In comparison, polymer solar cell technology is both low-cost and environmentally-friendly, and its light weight allows easy mass production via roll-to-roll printing methods, similar to those used to print newspapers.

While the research is still in its infant stage, Prof Yan and his team have already been able to produce polymer solar cells with the capacity to charge small gadgets such as laser pointers. The research team expects that the technology will lead to a commercially viable alternative source of energy in less than 10 years, and becomes a dominant, clean and reusable energy source.

Unveil Mechanisms of Photosynthesis

Have you ever wondered how the photosynthesis actually works and was amazed by its magic of power?

Our research team from the Department of Chemistry has solved the long-standing question in photosynthesis which provides insight into the design of artificial photosynthetic systems that may serve as alternative energy devices by effectively utilizing the sunlight.

Leading by Assistant Prof Xuhui Huang and Prof Yijing Yan, the HKUST research team revealed the secrets behind this phenomena by applying theoretical chemistry tools such as molecular dynamics and quantum mechanics calculations. They discovered that the dynamic and asymmetric protein environment makes one specific chlorophyll, CLA606, in the active chain significantly easier to be activated by sunlight energy, thus leading to the electron transfer along the active chain.

The results will provide insight into the fundamental mechanisms of photosynthesis and potential applications for the rational design and engineering of the photosynthetic machinery. They also show potential applications in physical chemistry, molecular biology and material science. There is so much to learn from our nature and to discover.  

Building a more energy efficient and healthier environment

Develops Mini Pulsed Electric Field Device for Water Disinfection Water is source of life and everyone needs clean water. HKUST research team has invented a mini pulsed electric field device which could reduce more than 90% of bacteria in the running tap water in a few seconds. The technology is a possible way to help control the spread of water-borne diseases such as Legionellosis caused by microbial contamination of water.

Microbiological water pollution is known to be a cause of water pollution. Water disinfection technologies such as chlorination, ozonation, heating and reverse osmosis are now widely used in drinking water disinfection. However, high concentrations of chlorine produce pungent smell and unwanted toxic by-products; while heating and reverse osmosis can be effective but energy consuming and expensive. Current technology uses high-input voltage pulse electric field as the key disinfection parameter, which can use up to a hundred thousand volt and create a potential electrical hazard to operators.

Researched by a collaborative team led by Prof King-Lun Yeung, Associate Dean of the School of Engineering and Prof Joseph Kwan, Director of Health, Safety and Environment Office, the newly invented device is designed to use low-input voltage to kill the bacteria by damaging their microbial cell wall with the electric field and render them non-infective. The portable battery-powered device can be installed at home and any public tap water system. It is cost-effective, environmentally-friendly and safe for the point-of-use disinfection of tap water. The research team is currently conducting an on-site testing in a public hospital.

Invention of Cheaper, Lighter and Stronger Aluminium Composite for Wide Applications

Industrialists have long looked for a way to merge carbon fiber with aluminium.

Research team led by Prof Yui-bun Chan from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, with support from leading global aluminium producer UC RUSAL, has managed to change the composition of carbon fiber by using nano technology, which allowed it to perfectly integrate with other substances like aluminium.

This new material is stronger than existing aluminium, cheaper and lighter than steel, and can also be used with insulation panels designed to produce a building envelope system that is safer, cheaper, more energy-efficient and easier to mount. Moreover, Fiber Reinforced Aluminium can be applied in a wide range of uses primarily in construction as an alternative to steel and cement, and also in electronic products, automobiles, aircrafts, building materials, thus it has the potential to significantly increase aluminium’s global applications.