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New horizons in research funding: Developing junior academics and enhancing research support for humanities and social sciences

The Research Grants Council (RGC) plans to enhance support to junior academic scholars by launching an “Early Career Scheme” with an estimated fund of HK$150 million. The scheme is designed to nurture the development of promising research talents by supporting the research projects of junior scholars at the beginning of their academic career. It is hoped that the scheme will encourage outstanding junior academics to Hong Kong to launch their careers, start up research programs, and strengthen the bond between research and teaching.

RGC Chairman Professor Roland Chin announced the details of the “Early Career Scheme” at a media briefing on 15 February 2011. He explained that the grant each scholar receives will vary depending on the research topic and practical needs of the research, with an estimated average of HK$1 million grant funding being allocated for each project and its educational activities. The scheme will be open for applications starting this August, and the outcome will be available by summer 2012. Application proposals will be reviewed independently by international experts, who will further shortlist up to 5% of the top junior scholars to receive the honorary title of “Early Career Award”.


Reorganization of RGC Subject Panels

To improve the effectiveness of the evaluation mechanism, the RGC endorsed the formation of a new subject panel and two sub-panels to assess the applications submitted under various research funding schemes:
(a)  a Business Studies Panel be established under the RGC to replace the Business Studies Sub-Panel;
(b)  the Humanities, Social Sciences and Business Studies Panel be renamed as the Humanities and Social Sciences Panel;
(c)  a Mechanical, Civil & Materials Engineering and System Design Sub-Panel be formed under the
Engineering Panel; and
(d)  an Arts and Humanities Sub-Panel be formed under the Humanities and Social Sciences Panel.

Liquid-based Photovoltaic/ Thermal Cogeneration for Real Building Application

Hong Kong, a modern sub-tropical city, has a great potential of applying solar energy in hot water and electricity cogeneration. Most buildings here are provided with conventional gas/electrical water heaters for serving hot-water supply. According to
the energy end-use data (2010) published by the Hong Kong Government, direct hot water production consumes about 5% of
the total energy use in the city, and 20% when considering only the domestic sector. Since 2005, the Hong Kong Government has
been targeting at 2012, with 1-2% of the territory-wide energy use from renewable energy sources. On the other hand, direct electricity generation from photovoltaic (PV) is more expensive than conventional power generation. The situation is expected to remain for some years.

By integrating PV modules with solar water heating collectors, the increased energy yield per unit collector area is able to shorten the economical payback period to less than 1/4 of the plain PV application. Such photovoltaic/water-heating (PVW) cogeneration is found to be much promising than the separate side-by-side installations of PV modules and solar thermal collectors from energy conversion, space utilization, and aesthetic points of view. The rationale behind the integration is that a PV cell available in the commercial market converts solar radiation to electrical energy with a peak efficiency in the range of 6-15%, depending on the specific PV-cell type in use. Most of the incident solarenergy is converted as heat, leading to an increase in the cell working temperature. By cooling the PV module with a stream of water, the electricity yield can be improved. In many places including Hong Kong, the promoted use of renewable energy has become a long-term government policy. With more and more solar systems required to be installed in buildings, the available roof space and facade surface area will sooner or later become inadequate for the wider application of solar energy. The hybrid PVW collector thus has a market potential to become a popular commercial product.


Development and Study of Hybrid Photovoltaic Cells
Hybrid photovoltaic cells are electronic devices designed for conversion of light into the noblest form of energy, electricity. They are cost effective alternatives to conventional silicon solar cells. Although their power conversion efficiency has been low so far, they can potentially surpass the conventional silicon cells not only in the production cost but also in performance because of their unique architectures combining organic and inorganic materials. 

The project is engaged in development and investigation of novel hybrid photovoltaic cells that will form a base for cost effective devices with high power conversion. The design of organic/inorganic photocell structures with implementation of new fabrication approaches and study of nanomaterial interfaces is the essence of the project. Particularly ZnO nanostructures with different morphologies including vertical ZnO nanowires and flocky nanorods (Figure 1a and 1b) prepared by simple methods are investigated and used in the designed photovoltaic device structures (Figure 1c). The ZnO nanowires, inherently n-type semiconductors, are infiltrated by organic p-type conducting materials to provide large-area p-n heterojunctions. The problem of the size and functions of the heterojunction interface and the infiltration by organic semiconductors is specifically investigated for wettability, electronic interfacial structures, effective dissociation of photo-induced excitons, their diffusion length and interfacial field separation. It is foreseen that within the designed photovoltaic cells the charge recombination process will be suppressed considerably to provide a high conversion efficiency of light to electricity. Optimizing the electrode configuration and possible suppression of charge recombination in different parts of the devices by engineering the interfaces in hybrid photovoltaic devices will lead to considerable improvement of the device efficiency.


Interfaces between Fullerenes and Semiconductor Nanowires: Nanofabrication and Photoinduced Charge Separation
The topic:
Semiconductor nanowires have diameters of about 10 billionths of a meter, or ten thousand times smaller than a human hair. Owing to their thinness, such nanowires are expected to have special optical and electronic properties. For example, they can efficiently transport electrons with a specific energy from one place to another, a property useful for solar cell applications. Fullerenes, on the other hand, are carbon cage molecules, among which C60, the Buckminsterfullerene, has the most symmetrical soccer ball structure. These fullerene molecules have so far turned out to be the most efficient electron acceptors in organic polymer solar cells. One of the stumbling blocks in developing this type of solar cells is the difficulty in controlling the morphology of the mixture of polymers and fullerenes. To solve this problem, a hybrid structure of inorganic nanowires and fullerenes has been proposed in this project. The goal was to create inorganic nanowires coated with fullerene molecules and study their photoelectric properties.

Methodology used:
The first step was to develop various bottomup chemical methods including direct solution reactions, electrochemical reactions, and insitu interfacial reactions to synthesize inorganic nanowires. Then fullerenes were attached to the surfaces of the nanowires using different strategies including fullerene polymerization, chemical functionalization, and ligand-binding. Finally photoelectrochemistry measurements were conducted to uncover the properties of photoinduced charge separation, transport and collection.


Vagus Nerve Stimulation Therapy:A New Tool for Suppressing Visceral Pain

It is well known that a hot drink or a nourishing meal is relaxing and helps to calm anxiety suggesting that enhanced sensory vagal inputs originating from the gut modulate attitude and behavior. Although vagal afferents are activated by noxious gastrointestinal stimuli, the contribution of the vagal nerve to visceral pain remains unresolved. Rodents do not have the forebrain structures to generate the cognitive feelings of humans, the use of behavioral paradigms visceromotor responses (VMR) to assess spinal pain reflexes in the conscious rat may help to identify the regulatory role of the vagal nerve in visceral pain sensation. We demonstrated that chronic subdiaphragmatic vagotomy decreases the threshold and enhances the VMR to all grades of colorectal distension (CRD) suggesting vagal nerves are involved in the inhibitory modulation of visceral pain responses.

Vagus nerve stimulation with the neuro-cybernetic prosthesis generator has been used clinically as a treatment for refractory epilepsy, major depression, and gastric dysrhythmia. To date, the influences of vagal nerve stimulation in visceral pain evoked by viscera nociceptive stimuli have not been investigated. Vagal electrical stimulation by different intensities may activate different types of nerve fibers. In this study, vagal afferent neuronal responses to low or high intensity electrical vagal stimulation (EVS) of afferent A or C fibers were distinguished by calculating their conduction velocity. Here, we showed that CRD produced contractions of the lateral abdominal musculature. High intensity EVS (400 μA,) which activated C-type fibers had no effect on CRD-induced abdominal pain. In contrast, low intensity electrical vagal stimulation (40 μA) which activated vagal A-type fibers reduced CRD-induced abdominal muscle contractions. This response was not affected by perivagal capsaicin-treatment. These observations suggest that vagal afferent nerves modulate visceral pain. Low intensity EVS which activates vagal afferent A- fibers reduced visceral pain.


On the Architecture of Synapses

The brain is full of mysteries and wonders. It is the most delicate and complex organ in the human body. Fragile yet powerful, the brain coordinates the functions of almost all other organs in the human body. It receives information from all over the body, makes decisions and sends commands to accomplish necessary tasks. Different regions of the brain are responsible for different functions such as movements, language, vision, learning, memory and so on. These regions are well linked to form complicated circuits to process information. A neuron, by an average number of about 100 billion, is the basic functional unit of the brain. They have very fine structures called synapses to send information to or receive information from other neurons. Each neuron can possess as many as 10,000 synapses, which means a neuron can make as many as 10,000 connections with others. Irregularities in synapse formation or synapse activity could possibly destroy the very basis of brain functions, leading to brain disorders or psychiatric diseases.

Unlocking the Causes of Stroke in Asia: The Importance of Intracranial Atherosclerosis
Stroke is the second leading cause of death and the commonest cause of disability among the Chinese. More importantly, stroke is more common in the Chinese than in the Caucasians. Yet there were few data to confirm if there were any true ethnic differences in the cause of stroke between the East and the West. With the support of the RGC, we were the first in the world to confirm that narrowing of the blood vessels around the brain was the commonest cause of stroke in the Chinese, in contrast to previous studies that showed narrowing of the blood vessel in the neck region was the commonest cause in the Caucasians. The same observation was later confirmed in other Asian populations such as the Thai, Korean, Malaysian and Indian.


Area of Excellence in Information Technology

The Area of Excellence in Information Technology (AoEIT) was supported by the University Grants Committee (UGC) in 2000 to perform research, teaching, and knowledge exchange to assist the transformation of Hong Kong into a knowledge-based economy, and to help fulfill China’s goal of becoming a technology innovator. It was a joint project of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and the University of Hong Kong. Our strategy was to leverage our existing strengths in core information technologies and their applications, and our research partnerships with distinguished local, Mainland and overseas research institutions, to perform research and development in this multi-disciplinary area. The project has strengthened inter-institutional collaborations, as evidenced by joint research resulting in over 200 publications in prestigious international journals and conferences. More than 20 teachers from the three universities contributed to this project, and over 80 research postgraduate students were trained. In addition, collaborations with Mainland and overseas institutions have been developed. In this article, we will summarize our work, highlight the key contributions, and describe on-going research. 

This AoEIT has made international impact, as evidenced by best paper awards, novel prototype systems, one-of-a-kind test-beds, software, international collaborations, and other accomplishments. The fundamental results and the salient outcomes of six research areas are summarized below. 


RGC Collaborative Research Fund – Layman Summaries of Projects Funded in 2010/11 Exercise 

High Precision Measurement of Neutrino Oscillation at Daya Bay
The recent discovery of neutrino oscillation – a neutrino travelling in space transforms from one type to another – has profound impacts on particle physics, astrophysics and cosmology. The Daya Bay Reactor Neutrino Oscillation Experiment aims to measure a key but yet unknown neutrino oscillation parameter, θ13, to an unprecedented precision of better than 3 degrees, which is critical to the design of future experimental tests of a possible explanation of why matter dominates anti-matter in the universe, a key condition for our existence.

The Hong Kong team has been an active member of the Daya Bay Collaboration, an international team with 38 institutions. We will contribute to the commissioning and monitoring of the experiment and analysis of data, with the help of a subsystem of the antineutrino detector built by our team. We will also design and construct a continuous radon monitoring system as well as a cover gas system to minimize radon contamination of the detectors.