European Union and China Co-Operation in Materials Research

Under a 1998 scientific co-operation agreement, Chinese researchers have been able to participate in EU Framework Programmes, starting with FP5. Funding is now available in FP6 from both the Commission and the Chinese government.

China is keen to open up and improve its integration in the world. The People’s Republic of China (PRC) signed an international co-operation agreement with the EU in 1998 that provides access to high-level scientific and technological expertise. Scientific potential in the PRC includes 515 000 researchers (compared with 700 000 in Europe), of whom 37% work in research centres, 26% in industry and 31% in academia.

Strong interest in materials

Following the establishment of the scientific co-operation agreement, EU Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin and Chinese Minister for Science and Technology Xu Guanhua signed a specific implementation agreement on materials sciences in October 2001. This promotes Chinese participation in EU projects and vice versa, as well as supporting training activities, and the exchange of scientific and technological information in this field.

China has huge raw materials resources and is one of the world’s biggest producers of materials. Europe has a technological leadership in materials sciences and can offer many development possibilities. The agreement covers basic generic technologies, improvement of the limits and durability of materials, advanced functional materials, sustainable production in the chemical industry, and nanotechnologies.

As a result of these international scientific co-operation agreements, Chinese partners are able to participate in the EU Framework Programmes. Under the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), PRC researchers were expected to obtain funding in their own country, but, in FP6, the Commission is also able to contribute to such funding.

The Commission and the Chinese Ministry of Science and Technology (MOST) also operate a China-EU science and technology co-operation promotion office (CECO) in Beijing to publicise EU research programmes.

Chinese research priorities

R&D in China is organised by MOST in a similar way to the EU Framework Programmes. There are two main elements for materials research:

  • Programme 973 for major basic research – this was established in 1997 with 197 main projects and 163 subprojects. CNY 423 million (€41 million) funding was planned for 1500 scientists and researchers; and
  • Programme 863, covering high technology areas – this was set up in 1986 with a budget of CNY 620 million (€60 million) for the first five years. The budget for 2001 to 2005 is CNY 1.82 billion (€176 million).

Key activities cover new science, advanced materials and sustainability. Topics include:

  • Photoelectric materials and devices, such as metal-organic source materials, substrates and synthetic crystals;
  • Functional materials, including energy conversion/storage (fuel cells, hydrogen, …) and magnetic materials;
  • High-performance structural materials, such as metals, ceramics, engineering polymers, composites and environmentally friendly construction materials as well as advanced design and processing technologies.
  • Results of the high technology programme are impressive, with 300 national and international patents, some 400 graduate students and over 900 papers published.

University-industry collaboration

“For me, one of the attractions of working in China is the fruitful co-operation with state-owned and private industry,” says David Evans, a professor at the Beijing University of Chemical Technology. Dr Evans was previously a lecturer in chemistry and director of undergraduate studies at Exeter University in the UK. In 1996, he went to China to set up a China-EU co-operative project – and stayed.

He appreciates the ability to scale up chemistry, a legacy of the Chinese system where technological ministries originally ran their own universities. “We have a pilot plant in the laboratory, and partner companies near Shanghai and at Dalian in northern China where we can carry out field trials,” he explains. “If we identify a target material, we can adjust it in the pilot plant and then scale up in field tests at our partners. So we can do fundamental work with application support to underpin it.”

Evans’ responsibilities include management of exchange programmes for staff and students with French and UK universities. He is keen to see China-EU co-operation in this field extended. “Chinese and European priorities are very similar,” he points out. “The USA is more divergent.”

Siegmar Roth, head of the Synthetic Nanostructures Group at the Max Planck Institute (MPI) in Stuttgart and Senior Visiting Professor at the Shanghai Institute of Technical Physics, concurs: “It is exciting for China to work with the EU as young scientists can come to Europe – it is more difficult in the other direction. It may appear to be a source of cheap manpower but it is motivating for them.”

High tech spin-offs encouraged

Overall, Roth sees China as a country that offers a body of skilled people, a large market with an interest in high technology, and quality equivalent to Europe and the USA. Spin-offs in China are particularly interesting as the government is keen to encourage Chinese students abroad to come back and set up companies in high technology areas. There is a problem of finance for SMEs in the EU, only 50% funding is available for Framework Programme projects for example and it is difficult to find guarantees; Chinese SMEs can get 100% funding.

One example of a successful Chinese SME is Yangtze Nanomaterials. This was set up by a Chinese student who had studied for two years at the MPI in Stuttgart before returning home to set up her own company. The Shanghai-based company has co-operated with both the MPI and the Italian national research council (CNRS) in Bologna on the development of nanotube devices. Yangtze is also participating in the FP5 GROWTH programme Carbon nanotubes for devices, electrodes and composites (CARDECOM) project on the use of nanotubes in nanocomposites for electromagnetic shielding.

Yangtze is now seeking to co-operate in SPANG (an FP6 specific targeted research project) with two European SMEs – Sineurop Nanotech in Stuttgart (DE), which wants to exploit nanotube detection technology developed originally by MPI, and Organic Spintronics (IT), a spin off from the CNRS in Bologna that focuses on nanotube production based on channel spark ablation. The SPANG proposal involves the use of nanocomposites in smarter printed circuit boards.

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