NSFC/RGC Joint Research Scheme 2014/15 Supported Applications - Layman Summaries of Projects Funded in 2014/15 Exercise

High-capacity Li-ion Battery Anode Design for Fast Charging Applications

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Dr Denis Yau Wai Yu (City University of Hong Kong)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Dr A Robert Armstrong (University of St Andrews)

Fast-charging is needed for electric vehicle applications. However, lithium-ion batteries with graphite anode cannot be fast-charged because of safety concerns. Currently, lithium titanium oxide is the leading anode for fast charging, but its energy density is low. This project aims at developing anode materials with large capacity to solve the problem.

MESO-ENERGY: Mesoscience for Energy Materials

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Dr Michael Kwok Hi Leung (City University of Hong Kong)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Dr Jin Xuan (Heriot-Watt University)

The aim of this project is to initiate a collaborative research platform named Mesoscience-Enabled Synthesis and Optimization of ENERGY materials (MESO-ENERGY) for long-term continuous development of advanced functional materials in energy applications. The research philosophy will highly involve mesoscience principles for gaining knowledge to explain unique mesoscale phenomena in between the quantum and continuity worlds. The new insights will enable continual improvement in functionality, efficiency and cost-effectiveness of new energy materials.

Laterality and neurodevelopmental disorders

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Prof Catherine McBride (The Chinese University of Hong Kong)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Dr Silvia Paracchini (School of Medicine, University of St. Andrews)

In the proposed study, we are introducing the pegboard test to an ongoing collection of participants in a twin study in Hong Kong aimed at understanding the development of reading/language difficulties. The pegboard will also be collected retrospectively on existing study participants. The pegboard is a quick and simple test. Participants are asked to move pegs from one row of holes to another with both hands. Difference in the time taken by the two hands provides a normally distributed measure (PegQ) which correlates with hand preference. We aim to reach a sample size of 200 participants with complete data on the pegboard task and reading-related measures, together with DNA samples. DNA will be extracted from saliva. We will analyze the top genetic markers identified in the UK cohort and test for an association with PegQ using quantitative genetics statistics. Observing replication of the signal will be extremely interesting; not only it will add robustness to the PCSK6 gene association but it will also show that such effect is independent from the language spoken. All study participants will be assessed on cognitive tasks; therefore whether the effect depends on poor performance on reading/language tasks will also be able to examine. Most importantly, a longer-term collection in Hong Kong to study the role of laterality in common neurodevelopmental disorders could be initiated. Such a cohort will be unique for being twin-based and for including English and Chinese speaking subjects.

Development of Nanostructured Solid Oxide Cell for Steam-carbon Dioxide Co-electrolysis

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Dr Meng Ni (The Hong Kong Polytechnic University)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Prof John Thomas Sirr Irvine (University of St. Andrews)

The fossil fuel depletion and global warming problems call for effective CO2 capture, storage and utilization. High temperature co-electrolysis of CO2 and H2O in solid oxide electrolysis cell (SOEC) offers an alternative and promising way to use CO2 for generating syngas (CO and H2 mixture), which can be further processed to produce various liquid fuels. To make this co-electrolysis more thermodynamically favourable and more economically competitive, there is a need to considerably decrease the electrical energy consumption. The natural gas-assisted co-electrolysis can potentially reduce the electric energy consumption significantly or even generate electrical power and thus could be a viable method for syngas production for the coming decades.

This project is purposely designed to experimentally and numerically investigate the SOEC behaviour by perfectly integrating the expertise of PIs from HK and Scotland. Detailed experimental investigations will be conducted in Scotland to fabricate, characterize and testing the SOEC. A comprehensive multi-physics, multi-scale mathematical model will be developed to simulate the performance of SOEC. The simulated electrochemical impedance spectroscope (EIS) data will be compared with the measured data for model validation. Detailed parametric simulation will be conducted to explore the complex processes in SOEC operation.

Successful completion of the project can significantly contribute to the development of high temperature electrolysis for hydrogen production or syngas production. The experimental research will generate original data for natural gas-assisted co-electrolysis. The mathematical modelling will offer insights in the operation mechanisms of co-electrolysis. The project can substantially contribute to effective carbon dioxide utilization and thus contribute to the low carbon and sustainable society.

The impact of marine renewable energy devices on marine environment

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Dr Limin Zhang (The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Dr Yakun Guo (University of Aberdeen)

Offshore wind energy is an important source of clean energy. In China, 7.5x108 kW of power could potentially be generated from wind offshore-approximately three times that from wind onshore. Several offshore wind farms have been constructed in the South China Sea; one is being planned within Hong Kong waters. The offshore wind and wave energy is harvested through marine renewable energy devices (OWED) such as offshore wind and tidal turbines. The presence of marine renewable energy devices in the ocean alters flow patterns around the foundation, causing pressure pulses. It enhances the sediment transport and scour, leading to the instability of foundations and eventually the failure of the whole system. Under certain wave load and local scour conditions, soil liquefaction takes place, which further destabilizes the foundation. The changes in the flow patterns and sea-bed conditions also affect the seabed eco-system and water animals.

The primary objectives of this joint research project between the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and the University of Aberdeen are to extend a fluid-structure interaction model to simulate the flow and pressure field around the foundations of marine renewable energy devices and to investigate the seabed sediment dynamics and local and global scour patterns around marine renewable energy devices. An integrated model will be developed jointly by coupling a Fluid-Structure-Interaction model developed at the University of Aberdeen with a mechanics-based sediment transport model developed at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. The integrated model will be applied to simulate soil liquefaction and sediment dynamics on the seabed and local scour around the foundation. The developed models will be useful for assessing the environmental impact of OWED in terms of sediment dynamics on the seabed and local scour around OWED.

Application of an ion-sensitive microprobe to investigate and compare the contribution to homeostatic Ca2+ regulation by the scales of diadromous sea trout (Salmo trutta) and freshwater zebrafish (Danio rerio)

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Prof Andrew Leitch Miller (The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Dr Chevonne Hazel Angus (University of the Highlands and Islands)

The scales of fish represent a significant internal reservoir of Ca2+ but little is known about their contribution to blood plasma Ca2+ balance and how Ca2+ deposition and mobilization are regulated in these calcified structures in a living fish. This is especially so when fish transition between salt and fresh water environments. This knowledge gap is partly due to the technical challenges involved in detecting and measuring Ca2+ moving into and out of scales of living fish in real-time and under varying Ca2+ challenges. From preliminary experiments at HKUST using scales removed from the fresh water zebrafish (Danio rerio), we have begun to develop a combination of techniques for the removal, live-culturing, mounting then surface scanning of intact scales using a unique, non-invasive, scanning ion-selective electrode technique (SIET). The SIET can resolve Ca2+ fluxes in the sub pmol/cm2/sec range, and with a spatial resolution between 3 - 5 £gm. This means that under different extracellular Ca2+ environments, Ca2+ fluxes into and out of scales can be quantified and correlated with particular morphological features and the cell type involved. Sites of preferential mineralization or resorption can also be identified. We propose to use zebrafish as a fresh-water control species and compare the Ca2+ dynamics of their scales under different Ca2+ challenges, with those removed from diadromous sea trout (Salmo trutta). The zebrafish-based experiments will be carried out in the Miller lab at HKUST, while those concerning sea trout will be undertaken in the Angus lab at the NAFC. The respective institutions have the facilities and expertise to provide the biological material required for this study. Furthermore, scales will be examined at both locations using near-identical SIET rigs. Thus, via careful calibration, the data collected at each site will be comparable. Scales of both species will be examined via the SIET while being subjected to different extracellular Ca2+ concentrations, and accurate Ca2+ flux maps constructed to identify the cells and regions responsible for generating inward and outward fluxes. Following SIET scanning, scales will be fixed for subsequent immunohistochemistry, labeling, and confocal microscopy. The goal of the study is to extend our limited understanding of the relationship between Ca2+ stored in the scales of fishes, and that in the internal blood plasma and external environment.

Advancing cell-based therapies for Parkinson's through Surfaceome Analyses

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Prof Kenneth Richard Boheler (The University of Hong Kong)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Dr Tilo Kunath (University of Edinburgh)

Parkinson's disease (PD) is a progressive neurodegenerative condition that causes severe movement disorders and other non-motor symptoms. Although symptomatic treatments are available for the early stages of this condition, there are no therapies available to slow or stop the progression of this disease. Transplantation of nerve cells may be a viable therapeutic option for Parkinson's patients since the location and identity of a major population of lost neurons is known. Specifically, dopamine-releasing (dopaminergic) neurons in a region of the midbrain are dramatically lost in PD. Clinical trials in the late 1980s and 1990s have shown that transplantation of dopaminergic neurons harvested from human fetuses can dramatically improve the lives of some Parkinson's patients. However, using human fetuses as a source of tissue presents many technical and ethical barriers. A potential solution to this problem is the production of dopamine-releasing neurons from a renewable and inexhaustible source - human pluripotent stem cell (hPSC) lines. This could provide an ideal replacement for the fetal-derived tissue used in the past. hPSCs can grow (proliferate) indefinitely and most importantly, they can be instructed to transform into any human cell type in the laboratory, including the exact type of dopaminergic neurons that are lost in Parkinson's.

The procedure to transform hPSCs into dopaminergic neurons is now well-established. However, the efficiency of converting hPSCs into this neuron type is about 70%-80%. This means that about 20%-30% of the cells/neurons are undesired and may cause complications after transplantation. The best solution to this problem of mixed cell types is to physically separate the desired dopaminergic neurons for the other cell types using a technique called fluorescence-activated cell sorting (FACS). The procedure takes advantage of the fact that different cell types have different sets of proteins on their cell surface. Antibodies that recognize unique cell surface proteins can be used in FACS to purify a desired cell type. We currently know very little about the unique cell surface proteins, or surfaceome, of midbrain dopaminergic neurons. The aim of this project is to use the highly specialized Cell Surface Capture (CSC) technology to precisely characterize the surfaceome of midbrain dopaminergic neurons derived from hPSCs. This knowledge will directly inform strategies for FACS purification of these neurons, and remove one of a few remaining barriers to advancing a cell-based therapy for Parkinson's.

In vivo delivery and expression of shRNA targeting SK1 and SK2 by Salmonella to tumours

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Prof Jiandong Huang (The University of Hong Kong)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Prof Nigel Pyne (University of Strathclyde)

Effective treatment of breast and prostate cancer represent significant unmet medical needs. The Scottish partner and others have demonstrated a critical role for the enzyme that catalyses formation of the bioactive lipid, sphingosine 1-phosphate (S1P) termed sphingosine kinase (two isoforms, SK1 and SK2) in cancer. Furthermore, it has also been shown that siRNA approaches are effective at eliminating these enzymes from cancer cells, resulting in death of cancer cells. The Hong Kong partner has developed an anaerobic bacterial delivery system that can be used to deliver shRNA payloads to modulate cancer progression under hypoxic (oxygen deprivation) conditions. We therefore aim to take advantage of: (i) SK1 and SK2 as viable therapeutic targets in cancer and the (ii) anaerobic bacterial delivery system to specifically target the hypoxic tumour to ablate cancer progression. This provides a means to confer specificity in targeting SK1 and SK2 only to anerobic regions of the tumour, thereby avoiding indiscriminate targeting of these enzymes in aerobic healthy tissue and thus, avoiding side-effects. The use of the bacterial delivery system is also anticipated to enhance efficacy of treatment by high efficiency transfection and knockdown of SK expression. These studies will provide 'proof of concept' in terms of developing new anti-cancer therapeutics in the collaborating host institutions in Hong Kong and Scotland.

Biomineralization response of shellfish to global change: biomaterial aspects and applications

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Dr Thiyagarajan Vengatesen (The University of Hong Kong)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Prof Maggie Cusack (University of Glasgow)

As human populations are rapidly growing, the reliance on seafood resources such as shellfishes is alarmingly increasing. These marine resources, however, are rapidly declining due to rising anthropogenic CO2 in the atmosphere and ocean (i.e. ocean acidification and warming). Production of shellfishes (oysters and mussels) is largely depending on whether they can produce an incredibly strong shell with CaCO3 crystals (biomineral) and organic matrix proteins (proteomics) under projected CO2 scenarios. Unfortunately we do not know how shellfishes are amalgamating minerals and proteins to produce a strong and complex biomaterial. This knowledge gap persists in the literature largely due to lack of interdisciplinary collaboration between biomineral and proteomics expertise. Our inability to predict the impacts of rising CO2 on shell architecture and mechanics threatens shellfish survival and food security. Therefore, the primary aim of this interdisciplinary collaboration is to combine expertise in environmental proteomics (HKU) with biomineral (biomaterial) analysis (Glasgow) to understand 1) how shellfishes use crystals and organic proteins to make a strong shell, and 2) to what extent the rising CO2 will impact the shell producing machinery and processes in oysters (Hong Kong) and mussels (Scotland). The shells from control and elevated CO2 treatments will be examined for mineral architecture (at Glasgow) and proteins (at Hong Kong) using modern tools. The gained knowledge will have a potential to be transferred to biomedical field for gaining insights into the design of new biomaterials and is essential for effective mitigation to ensure food security under rising CO2.

Single-cell transcriptomics in Sertoli cells and neural crest cells

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Dr Chi Hang Martin Cheung (The University of Hong Kong)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Dr Ryohei Sekido (University of Aberdeen)

During tissue development, a pool of seemingly homogenous population of progenitors contribute to the formation of distinct functional cell types within the tissue. This process is subject to coordinated regulation by a set of genes encoding messenger RNAs (mRNAs), which are translated into functional proteins. The entire mRNA component (transcriptome) of an individual cell underlies their physiological functions, behaviour, cell fate, and role in multi-cellular organisms. However, due to technical limitations in detecting small amounts of single-cell mRNAs, the majority of studies on transcriptomes are carried out on bulk samples, which limits the ability to uncover novel transcripts. Recent advances in single-cell transcriptomics have revealed heterogeneity in the gene expression among similar cell types. Individual cells, even when derived from a pool of progenitors, can exhibit a unique transcriptome and cell fate, with important functional consequences. Single-cell analysis allows us to unravel novel regulatory networks and functional diversity at the single-cell level in developing, adult and pathological tissues.

Our long-standing research interests involve the elucidation of the molecular control of Sertoli cells (essential for testis formation) and neural crest cell differentiation (essential for the formation of the peripheral nervous system). Taking advantage of the technical advances in single-cell analysis, Dr. Ryohei Sekido in Scotland has initiated a collaboration with me in Hong Kong with the aim to develop an experimental platform for single-cell transcriptomics to elucidate the heterogeneity of the gene expression in these cell types at the single-cell level. Despite being distinct functional cell types, the progenitors of Sertoli cells and neural crest cells both originate from epithelium and express Sox9, which is crucial for their differentiation, but how Sox9 promotes the distinct differentiation event at the single-cell level is not fully understood. In this proposal, we will use single-cell transcriptomics to investigate the heterogeneity of gene expression in both Sox9 positive-Sertoli cell and Sox9 positive-neural crest cells derived from Sox9-EGFP knock-in mouse embryos. This analysis will reveal stochastic gene expressions of each cell type at the single-cell level that underlies their distinct cellular state and functional diversity with respect to their niche. Comparing the single-cell transcriptome data between these two cell types will further reveal common and differentially expressed genes, which can provide mechanistic insights into their unique regulatory state and differentiation capacity during development.

Development of novel electrochemical cells for high-efficiency conversion of carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide fuel

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Prof Yiu Cheong Leung (The University of Hong Kong)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Prof Mercedes Maroto-Vato (Heriot Watt University)

Fossil fuel depletion and climate change are currently the two most pressing threats to human beings. There have been lots of studies on how to enhance energy security (mostly by renewable energy) and reduce ambient CO2 levels. Electrochemical conversion of CO2 to useful fuels can simultaneously tackle both the above two issues by providing a way of instant CO2 reduction and renewable fuel generation. Among various possible fuel products, CO is of particular interest as it can be combined with H2 to form syngas, which can be further converted in a Fischer-Tropsch process to liquid fuels such as methanol or "Fischer-Tropsch diesel". However, significant improvements in energetic efficiency and current density (i.e., conversion rate) are required before this technology becomes commercially viable. Developing electrodes with catalysts that exhibit reduced overpotential, high CO selectivity and fast kinetics as well as microstructures that facilitate efficient species transport is of decisive importance in achieving these improvements.

This project aims at gaining a thorough understanding of the electrode processes and developing general principles of electrode design for high-performance CO2-to-CO conversion. The proposed study will focus on synthesizing porous electrode materials, characterizing their electrochemical performance for CO2-to-CO conversion, and understanding the catalyst structure- cell performance relationship. A coupled experimental and modelling approach will be applied to achieve the insights into the transport and reactions within microstructured electrodes. The outputs of this study will serve as the support for our second phase research in which the well-designed high-performance electrode will be integrated into an optimized reactor for CO2 conversion at maximum performance.

Carbon Emission Modelling of Energy Systems for Retrofit Office Buildings

Hong Kong Principal Investigator: Dr Wei Pan (The University of Hong Kong)
Scottish Principal Investigator: Dr Xi Liang (University of Edinburgh)

In order to control greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions, the HKSAR government has proposed a carbon intensity reduction target of 50%-60% by 2020, compared to the 2005 level. The latest Hong Kong Energy End-Use report indicates that buildings account for 92% of all electricity use and 60% of GHG emissions in Hong Kong. Scotland also prioritises the role of the built environment in its climate strategy. Therefore, reducing energy use and carbon emissions of buildings is a priority in both Hong Kong and Edinburgh's climate agenda and should be promoted. Low or zero carbon building (L/ZCB) has emerged as an effective approach to fulfil potential carbon reductions. The bulk of previous building energy research has focused on building-centric solutions, e.g. building envelope and building services systems. However, there is limited knowledge of the effects of energy-supply-centric solutions on building carbon reductions. Also, for office buildings, renovation of building envelope might cause unacceptable disturbance to the fast-paced business environment.

Therefore, this collaborative project aims to develop and verify a carbon emission model of energy-supply-centric energy systems for L/ZCB retrofit office buildings. The research is designed to enable a comparative case of retrofit office buildings in Hong Kong vs. Edinburgh. The different boundary conditions of these two cities will offer a good opportunity to examine and verify the carbon emission model of energy systems. This proposed research will be guided by three objectives: (1) develop a carbon emission model of energy systems for L/ZCB retrofit office buildings in Hong Kong; (2) examine the effects of different energy system options on the operational lifecycle energy use and carbon emissions of retrofit office buildings in Hong Kong; and (3) develop design and policy strategies for optimising energy systems for retrofit office buildings. Energy simulation and multi-objective optimisation techniques will be integrated in the modelling process. Energy systems in three categories will be examined: on-site renewable energies; off-site renewables but directly connected with the building; and relevant emerging technologies appropriate to the HK and Edinburgh contexts. The model and the scenario analysis will inform retrofit office building energy design and policy decision-making.