Tong Lin's taking Deakin to the world
The miniscule fibres produced by the tantalising science of nanotechnology promise many things - better, stronger, cleaner materials; exciting medical advances that include the re-generation of skin for burn victims without scarring, and even safer air-conditioning systems.
They’re also - as Dr Tong Lin proves in his softly spoken way - a powerful symbol of the global village. If not exactly at the nanoscale yet, the world of research is getting smaller.
Tong comes originally from Henan Province, the ancient nursery of Chinese civilisation.
He began his academic career in Shanghai, then shifted to Beijing where he was awarded his doctorate in physical chemistry by the prestigious Chinese Academy of Science.
“The Academy is like the CSIRO in Australia, except unlike the CSIRO, they can award post-graduate degree like Masters or a PhD,” says Tong.
As modest as he is, you can’t help but notice a flicker of pride at this achievement. The CAS is the place in China to do research – and from which to be honoured with a doctorate.
The next thread in his career took him to CSIRO, Clayton and Wollongong in New South Wales, an allied research group in nanotechnology. And then, Tong worked in Akron, Ohio, another emerging nanotechnology centre.
The chance to come back to Australia lured
him to Geelong, Victoria, a long way from the core of Chinese culture
by now, but much closer to the emerging epicentre of ground-breaking nanotechnology.
The researchers come from all over the world, united by the ping pong table - winning the CMFI table tennis championship holds almost as much esteem as a doctorate - and a smiling but steely desire to lead the world in their fields.
Tong stands out in both endeavours.
“It is like a big family, working here,” he says. “I think Deakin is really going in the right direction with research.
“You work hard, but you get the recognition for your work.
“And the approach is very flexible. I am encouraged to apply my background in chemistry to my work in nanotechnology and fibres. In other words, the nature of the work is very multi-disciplinary and that suits me just fine.”
Dr Tong believes Deakin, already Australia’s fastest growing research institution, is on the cusp of major global recognition for the quality of its research in materials and fibres.
“Deakin is growing very quickly,” he says. “Honestly, at the moment there is not a lot of recognition for the quality of the work that is being done here, partly due to the sensitive nature of our sponsored projects.
“But that is changing. Each time we present a paper at an international conference, we have people coming up and congratulating us, wanting to know more.”
Dr Tong Lin has published 47 papers in his career, many of these with his colleagues in Akron.
But it is the new partnership with another CMFI table tennis wizard, Professor Xungai Wang, that holds perhaps the greatest promise not just for Deakin’s reputation, but also for a better quality of life for people all over the global village.
The pair has embarked on a major project aimed at reducing the diameter of polymeric nanofibres, many of which are used in tissue scaffolding.
This is a delicate medical treatment that enhances the repair of tissue.
“Electrospinning is currently the only promising technique for producing polymeric nanofibres on a large scale,” Professor Wang explained.
“The key limitation of this technology is that fibres electrospun from many polymers usually have diameters much larger than 100 nanometres. This restricts their applications in advanced areas such as tissue scaffolds and ultra-fine filtration.
We want to break the fibre diameter limit using a combination of new nanofibre splitting and bi-component electrospinning techniques developed at Deakin.
“Precisely controlling the morphology of electrospun nanofibres will significantly enhance their performance in sensitive and demanding applications.
“With the support of Basell Australia
P/L and Nanotechnology Victoria, we are also exploring melt electrospinning
for polymers such as polypropylene. Existing electrospinning technology
uses solution based polymers mainly.”
Bandages that aid skin re-generation are another potential outcome.
“The nanofibres can provide the scaffolding around which the skin can grow,” said Tong. “You have to have this scaffolding and it has to be very, very small.
“If something is burned, by linking stem cells with the tissue scaffolds, their skin will be able to repair itself, and without the scarring.”
As well as the health benefits the project has the potential to boost the Australian economy.
According to the US National Science Foundation, by 2011-2015, markets for nanomaterials with special properties and processes will reach $US 240 billion per annum.
Just a small part of that - but a bit bigger than a nanofraction - would make Australia less reliant on the income from coal and other raw materials it is now exporting in vast quantities to places like Tong Lin’s homeland.
Wooing Dr Tong Lin to Deakin; giving him the flexibility to use the broad range of skills accrued across three continents and making him feel part of the happy CMFI family have all ensured the balance of trade remains in Australia’s favour.