Who is Pr. Vivian Wing-Wah Yam?
Pr. Vivian Wing-Wah Yam – China
2011 Laureate for Asia and the Pacific
For her work on light-emitting materials and innovative ways of capturing solar energy.
Who is Pr. Vivian Wing-Wah Yam?
NO GENDER DIFFERENCE IN SCIENCE
“I do not think there is a difference between men and women in terms of their intellectual ability and research capabilities. As long as one has the passion, dedication and determination to pursue research wholeheartedly, one can excel regardless of one’s gender or background.”
She concedes, however, that women may still feel discouraged about pursuing science. “Many young women are still worried about the barriers they might face in their careers posed by possible gender stigmas. This is particularly prevalent in Asian countries, and even in major modernized cities like Hong Kong, albeit globalised, where conventional or even biased Chinese values still prevail.”
CHEMISTS ARE ARTISTS
Professor Vivian Wing-Wah Yam describes the boundless possibilities of chemistry and the beauty of this discipline. “One of the beauties of chemistry is the ability to create new molecules and chemical species. I have always associated chemists with artists, creating new things with innovative ideas,” affirms Professor Yam. She also points out the interdisciplinarity of research which can lie at the crossroads of chemistry, physics and engineering to respond to energy and environmental challenges, or at the junction of chemistry and medicine for the development of new biomedical applications.
ENERGY, THE CHALLENGE OF THE CENTURY
Alternative sources of clean, renewable energy, are a top priority because they are linked to several other key issues like water scarcity, global warming and climate change. “There are many challenges facing our planet today, including food and healthcare. However, I believe energy is the most urgent challenge because once it is solved, it will have a positive impact on the others, since they are all interconnected in one way or another. Everything is linked to our everincreasing demand for energy!”
What is her research about?
The Sun gives us plenty of energy… but how do we store it?
One reason we rely so heavily on fossil fuels to power our world is that they are easy to store. Oil and coal can be extracted from mines or underground wells and, after minimal refinement, sent directly to car engines or power plants. Their ease of use reduces their cost relative to renewable energy sources like wind, wave power and solar energy, which is why renewable energies currently comprise only a fraction of global energy output.
Professor Vivian Yam has spent years investigating methods to capture and store solar energy efficiently. The key to this puzzle lies in an area of research called photoactive materials. Their most important feature is that they absorb light energy in their chemical bonds and convert it to electrical energy that can be used to power electronic devices.
This is how modern solar cells work, but they have limited efficiency. The most efficient solar cells today are made from silicon crystals, are very expensive to produce and are able to convert less than 30 percent of the solar energy they absorb. By developing and testing new and photoactive materials, Professor Yam and her colleagues hope to overcome these limits.
Investigating photoactive materials
Professor Yam has focused her attention on a class of versatile photoactive materials called organometallics, which consist of large organic molecules surrounding a metal core. Depending on the type of metal at the core of the complex and the nature of the surrounding organic molecule, organometallics can absorb and emit light at a range of different wavelengths and efficiencies. The goal of solar energy research is to construct materials that absorb light, especially in the visible and near-infrared (NIR) region, with high efficiency, but other interesting photoactive devices, such as light emitting diodes, may require different features.
Professor Yam’s techniques for systematically varying and characterizing the properties of the organometallic complexes she explores have led to the discovery of several materials with unique light absorption properties that may prove useful for harnessing solar energy.
Photoactive materials have a wealth of potential applications
The applications of photoactive materials go far beyond solar energy. Many technologies that we use every day, such as organic light-emitting diode (OLED) displays, rely on photoactive materials. Such materials may also prove biologically useful because they can detect environmental dangers – for example, a molecule that lights up when exposed to oil could be helpful in assessing the damage done by an oil spill; or lights up when exposed to ions like mercury ions or cesium ions could be helpful in assessing environmental pollution or radioactive contamination, respectively. They can also be useful in the laboratory, where such molecules could be used to monitor reactions occurring between DNA and proteins. Photoactive materials could also serve as chemosensors, detecting changes in solution concentration, pH, or temperature. The potential applications of Professor Yam’s research are truly limitless.
What is her background?
Professor Yam received her bachelor’s and PhD degrees from the University of Hong Kong. She taught at the City Polytechnic of Hong Kong before joining the University of Hong Kong as a faculty member, and has served as the Chair Professor of Chemistry since 1999 and Head of the Chemistry Department there for two terms from 2000 to 2005. At age 38, she was the youngest member ever elected to the Chinese Academy of Sciences. She is also a Fellow of TWAS, The Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, and was awarded the 2005 State Natural Science Award, the 2005-06 RSC Centenary Medal as well as several other awards and grants from associations in Hong Kong, Japan and around the world. She serves as an associate editor for Inorganic Chemistry, the premier journal in her field.