His studies may focus on some of the world's smallest organisms, but Professor Qian Peiyuan is tackling some of the biggest problems facing the maritime industry.
Since 1997, Professor Qian and his team have been studying the effects of biofilm on the colonization and distribution of marine invertebrates, such as corals and shellfish. A founding director of the MSc Environmental Science program at the University, founding director of Coastal Marine Laboratory, and Chair Professor of the Division of Life Science, Qian has recently been granted with the HKUST David von Hansemann Professorship in Science (generously donated by Jebsen Educational Foundation); a significant recognition bestowed upon eminent academics at the University, in honor of his latest achievements.
"Biofilm is made of bacteria and organic matter that lies on surfaces. It's on walls, it's on us – it's what coats your teeth when you haven't brushed them," Qian explains. As well as teeth, biofilm is also found on surfaces underwater, such as the undersides of ships. This biofilm is responsible for sending signals that attract marine benthos such as barnacles to cling onto ships' hulls. This can slow ships, and increase fuel costs significantly. In the 1970s a popular 'anti-fouling' agent called TBT (tributyltin) was painted onto boats to repel such creatures. But TBT is highly toxic, and was completely banned in 2013.
"The problem is that people have gone back to using copper and alternative pesticides – whatever they can grab from the shelf," says Qian. "But we all know these are basically toxic; whatever they're adding is not necessarily any better than TBT was."
Qian's breakthrough discovery involves a class of compounds called butenolides, which can impact biofilm and repel benthos, without any toxic properties. It's a finding that, as well as promoting sustainable ways of dealing with the problem, could save the maritime industry billions of dollars. For this achievement, Qian was awarded with a second-class prize at the 2016 Natural Science Awards, presented by the State Council of China. This is the most prestigious natural science award in the country, with the 42 prizewinners invited to a grand ceremony in Beijing, at which Xi Jinping and Li Keqiang were present.
"We consider butenolides to be today's most promising non-toxic anti-fouling compound," says Qian. The direct cost of biofouling is about US$18 billion per year. Including other industries such as power plants, it's even more.
In recent years, nuclear and coal power plants in locations including Japan, India, the US and Canada have shut down after swarms of creatures such as jellyfish and mussels blocked water intakes required for cooling. The Chinese Navy also approached Prof Qian and is testing the paint on their boats.
Despite the accolades, Prof Qian is not losing sight of the tangible importance of continuing his research – he sees the need to protect the ocean, and to do it urgently.
"The ocean has lots of resources, as well as being a very good absorber and regulator of heat. If we destroy the marine ecosystem, we destroy our planet," he says simply. HKUST is pleased to invest in and support the continued work of Prof Qian and his team, promoting ecological benefits long into the future.