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Mason Tomson
Amy T. Kan
Wei Chen

 

Rice University’s China-U.S. Center for Environmental Remediation and Sustainable Development aims to develop innovative and practical environmental solutions for sustainable development in China and the United States.

In this interview, the Center’s Co-Directors, Drs. Mason Tomson, Amy T. Kan and Wei Chen, outline the Center’s mission, goals and current projects and discuss the Center’s research plans for 2008.

Please provide a brief description of your professional backgrounds and of your positions as Co-Directors of the China-U.S. Center for Environmental Remediation and Sustainable Development.

Mason Tomson obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry (aquatic thermodynamics) from Oklahoma State University in 1972. He serves as Co-Director of the China-U.S. Center along with Professor Amy T. Kan.

Amy T. Kan obtained her Ph.D. in food chemistry and chemical engineering from Cornell University in 1982. She serves as Co-Director of the China-U.S. Center along with Professor Tomson.

Wei Chen obtained his Ph.D. in environmental science and engineering from Rice University in 1999. As Co-Director of the China-U.S. Center, he serves as the overall coordinator for the China side of the collaboration.

The Center is a grassroots collaboration among environmental scientists at Nankai and Tianjin Universities in Tianjin , the Chinese Research Academy of Environmental Science in Beijing and Rice University in Houston, TX . What issues or events led to the Center’s development, and what is the Center’s mission?

When Wei Chen first returned to China, he was stunned not only by the rapid development of his country, but also by the serious environmental problems that can accompany rapid economic growth. In early 2005, he invited all of the environmental engineering professors at Rice University to visit Tianjin to meet with representatives from government agencies and research institutions and to discuss environmental issues, challenges and opportunities in both countries.

In the past few decades, Americans have faced many of the environmental challenges that China faces today. We thought that these similarities and differences are great opportunities for scholars and companies in both China and the U.S. to develop the most effective solutions that require new science and engineering, and we thought that a collaborative research center would facilitate this effort. At about the same time, Rice University, under the new leadership of the Dean of Engineering, Sallie Keller-McNulty, and the President of Rice University, David Leebron, established international collaboration, especially with Asian countries, as a priority goal for the university in a global economy. Therefore, it was fitting that the China-U.S. Center be established between Nankai and Rice Universities.

The Center’s overall missions are to:

  • Develop innovative and cost-effective solutions for timely and important energy and environmental problems and for sustainable urban development in China and the U.S.
  • Provide international educational opportunities to prepare students in both countries for an increasingly global workplace. 

The Center’s research focus includes:

  • Environmental remediation
  • Drinking water treatment
  • Groundwater preservation
  • Cleanup and modeling
  • Air pollution control
  • Prevention and modeling
  • Environmental policy, law and regulation

What research activities are currently underway with respect to these areas, and what research projects does the Center have planned for 2008?

Environmental remediation and water treatment through nanotechnologies are the current focus of the Center’s activities. Besides four funded joint research projects in fundamental research in these two areas, a major effort is underway to remediate petroleum-contaminated soil in oil fields in China.

Additionally, collaborators from both sides have identified 18 research topics, written white papers and prepared several proposals. In 2008, soil remediation and nanotechnologies for water treatment will remain key research areas for the Center.

However, other research projects, including evaluation of the environmental impact of antibiotic-resistant genes and investigation of ecological diversities in the Bohai Coastal Area in China, will also be initiated. Weichun Yang, a senior graduate student from Nankai University, is on a one-year visiting scholarship to study arsenic treatment in drinking water at Rice University. A biodiversity text is planned for the same Bohai Coastal Area to document the extent of diversity as industrialization proceeds. In addition, a text on groundwater contamination by Professor Bedient is being translated into Chinese and should be available by Fall 2008.

In an effort to protect the region of Tianjin  and Bohai Gulf, six Rice University professors visited Nankai University and developed eighteen white paper proposals on the following topics:

1. Bioremediation and nanotechnology.

2. Fate and transport of organic chemicals and heavy metals.

3. Hydrology, surface and groundwater modeling.

4. Drinking water purification.

5. Atmospheric pollution control and remediation.

6. Environmental policy and regulatory structure.

What is the status of these proposals, and how will they be implemented to protect Tianjin and Bohai Gulf specifically?

The Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC) has funded four of these proposals, and the Ministry of Science and Technology of China has recently funded one of the proposals. All of these proposals are closely related to environmental protection in these areas, and they will greatly enhance the knowledge needed for that effort. The remaining will be the subject of additional proposals and hopefully Center funding.

What is the Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA), and what is the Center’s relationship with TEDA?

Established in 1984, Tianjin Economic and Technological Development Area (TEDA) is one of the country’s first state-class development areas. Over the years, TEDA has developed into one of the country’s most influential hotbeds for high-tech and new industries, with a more ambitious goal for the new century—to build “Asia’s biggest and China’s best modern industrial area in the 21 st century.”

TEDA currently runs four pillar industries:

  • The electronics communications industry represented by Motorola, GS, Samsung, Hyundai and LG
  • The biomedicine industry represented by Novo Nordisk and SmithKline Beecham
  • The machinery manufacturing industry represented by Toyota and Volkswagen
  • The food and beverage industry represented by Tinghsin Group, Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola

The Center has a close relationship with TEDA. The TEDA government hopes that the Center will serve as a venue for companies, regulators and universities at TEDA to facilitate the exchange of technologies and to ensure better communication regarding regulations, environmental needs and other issues.


How can safety professionals with environmental responsibilities make the most of the Center’s resources?

This Center will be established as the leading U.S. organization in the Tianjin/Bohai area to provide solutions to environmental and sustainable development problems and to facilitate U.S. companies’ environmental compliance in China. Safety professionals with environmental responsibilities can benefit from the Center for the following reasons:

  • The Center provides a platform for U.S. and Chinese corporations to communicate and to build understanding and collaborations between company personnel, government regulators and university researchers.
  • The Center provides a platform to communicate and to address regulatory issues with central and local government agencies.
  • The Center provides a platform to collaborate with the top national key laboratories and personnel in research and development.
  • The Center provides a platform to solve many common environmental challenges in Tianjin and Houston.
  • Tianjin coastal areas form an important case study for the development of new environmental technologies.
  • Rice and Nankai Universities each have strong complimentary faculties and students well-matched to cooperate on solving 21 st-century energy and environmental problems.

Additionally, the Center can serve companies with environmental responsibilities by helping them solve environmental-related technical issues and by helping them open new business in the area. The Center will provide an opportunity for environmental companies/analytical labs to provide services in the area, a platform for companies to showcase their work in environmental preservation and access to qualified young professionals in national key laboratories.

The Center represents a partnership between academia, industry and government. How does the Center meet the needs of each group?

The Center provides a great platform for U.S. and Chinese corporations to communicate and to build understanding and collaborations, to communicate and address regulatory issues with central and local government agencies, to collaborate with top national key laboratories and personnel in research and development and to solve many common environmental challenges in Tianjin and Houston. Many areas are of mutual interest to the different parties. Annual meetings will be a primary method for people from each group to communicate on a one-on-one basis and in formal presentations. Scholarly publications and selected books on issues of common interest will be the permanent record of the Center.

Has the Center encountered any challenges in working with U.S. or Chinese government regulations?

The Center’s activities thus far have focused on the development of innovative technologies to deal with environmental problems in both countries. These activities benefit both countries and are in line with their related regulations. We have received no challenges from Chinese or American regulations.

Have other universities begun to create their own programs using the Center’s success as a model?

In March 2007, presidents of 13 Chinese universities attended a workshop at Rice University. All of the universities expressed strong interests in the Center, and six universities signed formal agreements with President Leebron of Rice University after the workshop. Many universities have considered creating their own program following the Center’s model.

What are the Center’s goals for 2008? Does it plan to pursue any new areas of research and development?

While the Center’s major goal is to strengthen our existing areas of collaboration and research, we also hope to identify new areas of research and development and to expand the Center’s current activities, particularly in issues related to the atmosphere.

The Center’s first annual meeting will be held from March 20-21, 2008 in TEDA. The forum’s theme will be “Achieving Sustainable Development in BNAT: Challenges and Opportunities.” Speakers will include officials from Tianjin, BNAT, TEDA governments, the Ministry of Science and Technology and the Ministry of Education, university leaders and industry and faculty representatives. On the first day, we plan to discuss new business opportunities in BNAT, environmental, energy and resource issues and opportunities for international collaboration. A tour of TEDA and BNAT will take place on the second day.

Mason Tomson

Mason Tomson obtained his Ph.D. in chemistry (aquatic thermodynamics) from Oklahoma State University in 1972. He then worked as Assistant to the Provost of Natural Sciences and Mathematics until 1977, when he was appointed as an Assistant Professor at Rice University. He currently is a professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department and a Distinguished Guest Professor of Nankai University.

Tomson’s research has focused on all aspects of applied aquatic chemistry. He holds four patents, has published two books and over 200 papers and has supervised over $15 million dollars of externally funded research. He serves as Co-Director of the China-U.S. Center for Environmental Remediation and Sustainable Development at Rice University along with Professor Amy T. Kan.

Amy T. Kan

Amy T. Kan obtained her Ph.D. in food chemistry and chemical engineering from Cornell University in 1982. She then worked for International Flavors and Fragrances, Inc. in New Jersey for three years.

In 1985, she joined Rice University as a Research Associate. She is currently a professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. In this capacity, she has contributed to environmental research and to the Brine Chemistry Consortium with 85 papers, two patents, conference proceedings and technical reports. She has served on the Steering Committee for the Society of Petroleum Engineers’ Oilfield Scale Control, and she is also a guest research professor of Nankai University.

She serves as Co-Director of the China-U.S. Center for Environmental Remediation and Sustainable Development at Rice University along with Professor Tomson.

Wei Chen

Wei Chen obtained his Ph.D. from Rice University in 1999 under Professor Tomson. He then worked for the Houston office of Brown and Caldwell, a national environmental engineering consulting company.

In February 2004, he accepted a position as Distinguished Professor at Nankai University in his hometown of Tianjin. He is currently Director of Tianjin Key Laboratory of Environmental Remediation and Pollution Control and an adjunct professor of Rice University.

As Co-Director of the China-U.S. Center for Environmental Remediation and Sustainable Development at Rice University, he serves as the overall coordinator for the China side of the collaboration.