In November 2013, the University of Nottingham Ningbo (UNNC), China’s first Sino-foreign university, honored its first two Ph.D degrees in the institution’s ten-year history. The two new PhDs are Nguyen Vu Hong Thai from Vietnam, a finance expert, and Zhou Tongyu from Ningbo whose research is in sustainable energy/building technologies. Thai returned to Vietnam to start lecturing at a university. Zhou was on a team that invented and patented a new construction material that can regulate heat transfer much better than other materials available in the market, thereby potentially greatly improving energy efficiency in residential and commercial buildings. In December, the graduate Zhou was gracious enough to share some of his time with Ningbo Focus.
ON: Where did you do your earlier training?
ZTY: I left Ningbo to attend Shenzhen University, and I later did a master’s degree at Xi’an Technology University.
ON: Why did you choose UNNC for your Ph.D?
ZTY: After undergrad, I worked for two years in a building materials company in Hangzhou. I needed some more experience and some further study in the industry. A friend suggested UNNC. They had just created the Centre for Sustainable Energy Technologies (CSET) Building, the first zero carbon building in China. I saw that building and made my decision. I was also attracted by the work of my supervisor, Professor Jo Darkwa, who is remarkable. At UNNC, I was also able to acquire international education in my home city.
ON: What is the most exciting thing about being on a groundbreaking team that had a major scientific breakthrough？
ZTY: It was not really a breakthrough. More like a small improvement in this area. But the best thing was being able to finally achieve something that can benefit energy-efficient buildings. That is what I came to the program for and I finally got my PHD. I was also able to make some achievements in the field. I learned something that matters in modern scientific activities, and that was how to create a plan and stick with our plan.
ON: What was your role in the team?
ZTY: I was the first Ph.D student awarded in this department. I started in 2009. Now there are about ten Ph.D students and four or five of them are involved in PCM. My role was to establish part of the foundational research of PCM on gypsum dry walls. So, based on my research, others can develop PCM for wider applications. Not only on A/C units, but with double façade systems and perhaps even in blinds.
ON: So, what exactly is PCM?
ZTY: It stands for phase change material. It can be used to temporarily store energy and then release back the energy when needed. Ours is called novel non-deformed energy storage PCM.
ON: How soon might this new PCM reach the market?
ZTY: There are a lot of companies and governments pressing to see it make it to the market, so probably within the next two years.
ON: What makes your PCM different from others?
ZTY: We filed a patent two years ago and got the patent this year. Researching on PCM technology is not only our project, we are award-winning in the PCM area. Others are researching it, but ours is at a higher level. We are controlling the heat and storage rate of the materials. Controlling the rate means that PCM boards can be used in wider applications. Maybe all over China, they can use the product with better performance rates. We don’t want to replace them in three or four years like those that are already available. Gypsum boards have a longer life cycle. We are looking creating materials that can perform up to 5,000-10,000 more charging cycles than what is standard now.
ON: Is this all the rage at the green building conferences?
ZTY: There have been many conferences to attend and share our research. Most recently in Hong Kong this past July. Our research center at UNNC also hosts the annual International Symposium on Low Carbon Buildings, and I have been involved in all three so far since 2010. We did presentations and deep discussions on PCM. The attendees were excited to see our improvements. They saw samples and were quite impressed. Visitors attended from United Kingdom, United States and domestically from Shanghai, Shenzhen and Beijing.
ON: So, what’s next for you?
ZTY: Taking a short break. I’m now considering my next move. Maybe I’ll stay in a university or research institute. Maybe I’ll start my own career. Whatever I do, it will be related to my research. My first choice, of course, is Ningbo because my family is here.