Seeing the world through a different lens
BAOHUA JIA is driven by the desire to change lives, and her work has led to breakthroughs in renewable energy and medical imaging technologies.
You never forget a good teacher, says Swinburne researcher Professor Baohua Jia. Especially one who unlocks the world of science, inspiring you to dedicate your life to research.
“As a child I wasn’t very good at physics, but in high school there was a physics teacher who really changed my attitude,” explains Baohua, recalling the moment her interest in the subject was piqued. “He was able to explain really complicated things in a simple way, and this made me think very differently about physics.”
Raised in Tianjin on China’s northeastern coast, from a young age Baohua enjoyed “experimenting and thinking things through,” an approach she attributes to her father, an engineer, who she remembers fixing things around their home. Now an Associate Professor at Swinburne University of Technology, she is clearly very good at both. Her work has contributed to the development of speedier telecommunications, cheaper and more efficient solar cells and the application of graphene’s amazing properties to streamline lenses and store energy.
First made in 2004 by researchers in the UK, whose work won them the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010, graphene is the world’s first two-dimensional (2D) material. Its remarkable physical properties have intrigued scientists ever since, and could usher in the next technological revolution.
Made from layers of single carbon atoms arranged in a honeycomb lattice, graphene is around two hundred times stronger than steel of the equivalent thickness, a thousand times more conductive than copper, tougher than diamond, and incredibly flexible and stretchable. It is also completely transparent.
Graphene could open the door for flexible, wearable smartphones and tablets that could be rolled-up like a newspaper. Being transparent, it can be used in applications such as the touchscreens on phones, or electricity-generating window panes.
In the future, graphene could also be used to coat machinery, resulting in almost zero energy loss between moving parts, improving energy efficiency and extending the life of the equipment. It could also be used for coating surgical tools and killing bacteria, reducing the need for antibiotics, leading to lower rates of post-operative infections and improving recovery times.
WOWED BY SWINBURNE
After completing her university entrance exams, Jia majored in optics for her undergraduate double degree, studying for a Bachelor of Science in Applied Optics and Bachelor of Economics and Management at Nankai University in Tianjin.
“Light seemed really clean and bright to me. I wasn’t thinking logically, it just felt right,” says Baohua. “I’m also an energetic person who wants to do many things. I enjoyed science, but also studying management turned out to be very important for my career development.”
Baohua says she was always interested in finding practical solutions to problems, and, after graduating, continued to pursue her interest in optics by studying for a Master of Science in Optical Communications at Nankai University, focusing on fibre-optic sensors and their use in telecommunications.
After completing her master’s degree in 2002, an opportunity to study overseas arose when a meeting with the head of the Centre for Micro-Photonics at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne led to the offer of a scholarship to study for a PhD.
“I’d always wanted to go overseas to gain more experiences and further my knowledge, and was considering going to America, but when I saw what Swinburne were doing, I thought ‘wow’ and moved to Australia instead,” Baohua explains.
Despite adapting well to the cultural change, she says the first year was particularly challenging as she battled to find a direction for her research. Having previously worked with fibre-optics, she was now working in a new field in which her knowledge was limited.
Deciding to work in near-field optics — a branch of science that seeks to improve the performance of imaging devices, such as cameras and microscopes — she focused her research on “practical outcomes that could change people’s lives”.
“My supervisors were very supportive, and once I found a direction for my research, I really enjoyed myself,” explains Baohua.
In recognition of the quality of her research she was awarded the Biotechnology Entrepreneur Young Achievement Australia Award in 2005, the first of many accolades.
Shortly after giving birth to her first child in 2006, she received her PhD, which she describes as one of the happiest moments of her life: “My daughter was six months old and attended the graduation ceremony with me. I was very proud of that.”
“She loves science, and my son, who is now four, is also asking questions. I love explaining things to them. Sometimes I can’t answer, so I encourage them to look things up in books.”
With a young family to consider, she initially struggled with the competitive and uncertain nature of academic research, and at one point considered leaving the field to pursue something else. Her persistence, however, was about to pay off.
Soon after receiving her doctorate she was offered a position at the Centre for Ultrahigh-Bandwidth Devices for Optical Systems (CUDOS), an Australian Research Council (ARC) funded Centre of Excellence.
“I was responsible for coordinating 20 researchers from across five different universities, and our goal was to develop an optical chip to replace the current electronic chips used in telecommunications, which are slow and have limited bandwidth,” Baohua explains. “Those two years were very enjoyable and extremely fulfilling.”
The project led to a breakthrough in optical circuitry, accelerating telecommunications able to transfer much larger amounts of data. The results appeared in the journals Nature Photonics and Advanced Materials.
In recognition of her work for CUDOS, she was awarded an ARC post-doctoral fellowship (APD) in 2008, which proved to be a turning point in her career.
“The fellowship meant I could develop a long-term goal. Continuity as a researcher allows you to develop an in-depth understanding of a subject,” Baohua explains. “Swinburne gave me the freedom and support to focus on my own research and continue along the path I wanted to follow.”
SOAKING UP THE SUN
In keeping with Baohua’s philosophy that research should lead to practical outcomes that can change lives, she turned her attention to solar cell technologies, and in 2010 was appointed research leader in nanophotonics solar technology at Swinburne.
Taking on the challenge of reducing the cost and improving the efficiency of solar cells — a problem manufacturers have grappled with for decades — she approached the problem from a new angle, using Swinburne’s expertise in making nanostructures to find a solution.
“If more light enters the solar cell, a higher efficiency can be achieved,” she explains. “So we approached Suntech Power Holdings, one of the world’s largest solar cell manufacturers with our ideas. They were keen to collaborate, but on the condition that we could secure government support.”
Solar cells are made of multiple layers of semi-conducting materials that convert light to electricity. To improve efficiency, most research had focused on increasing the purity of the layers. Baohua, working with her team, looked at how extremely small materials interact with light, a field known as nanoplasmonics, and developed a low-cost solar cell that absorbs more light than can be manufactured using current technologies.
The solar cell is a thousand times thinner than current cells. By placing it on a glass pane, it could replace expensive rooftop solar cells with windows capable of powering the whole building. Supported by their industrial partner and Swinburne University, Baohua’s team secured funding from the Victorian government, and the Victoria-Suntech Advanced Solar Facility opened in 2010, with Baohua appointed a senior research fellow for the facility.
“I’ve known Baohua for more than a decade,” says Professor John Wilson. “She’s a very good team player and also works well on her own.
“Her work has always been very innovative. She really is quite a star and a real asset to the university.”
John has been the Executive Dean of the Faculty of Science, Engineering and Technology at Swinburne for the past five years and has great respect for Baohua’s research and her approach to working with others.
“She has a very caring nature too, and I had the privilege of meeting her daughter and mother at an award ceremony,” says John, referring to the occasion when she was awarded the Australian Institute of Policy and Science’s 2013 Young Tall Poppy Science Award. “It was lovely to see the three generations celebrating her success together.”
Baohua continues to work on solar cells, but has recently turned her attention to graphene (see WONDER STUFF above), whose astonishing properties promise to revolutionize technologies. “Much of the research has focused on synthesizing graphene, but our starting point was quite different,” explains Baohua. “We were interested in looking at its optical properties and their potential use in real-world applications.”
Producing graphene can be costly and challenging, so Baohua and her colleagues used a laser to pattern layers of graphene oxide (graphene combined with oxygen), and then by removing the oxygen, produced low-cost, patterned films of graphene, a thousand times thinner than a human hair.
“By patterning the graphene oxide film in this way, its optical and electrical properties can be altered, which allowed us to place them in different devices,” says Baohua.
The work has led to the development of a lens a billionth of a metre thick that can be placed on the tip of an optical fibre capable of producing images with the quality and sharpness of much larger glass lenses.
“Compared with current lenses, our graphene lens only needs one film to achieve the same resolution. In the future, mobile phones could be much thinner, without having to sacrifice the quality of their cameras. Our lens also allows infrared light to pass through, which glass lenses don’t allow,” explains Baohua.
Warm objects give off infrared light, and so mobile phones with graphene lenses could be used to scan for hotspots in the human body and help in the early identification of diseases like breast cancer.
And by attaching the lens to a fibre optic tip, endoscopes — instruments inserted into the human body to confirm diagnosis or deliver treatment, which are currently several millimetres wide — could be made a million times smaller. Baohua’s work on graphene lenses was published in 2015 in Nature Communications.
Baohua and her colleagues are also investigating graphene’s amazing physical and electrical properties for their potential use as supercapacitors, capable of storing very large amounts of energy, which could soon replace conventional batteries.
“Baohua has really advanced our knowledge of graphene in the last few years,” says Professor David Moss. “We’ve had a lot of interest in the lens technology, and it’s her that is driving this forward. The work is a real strength for the centre.”
David joined Swinburne University as Research Director of the Centre of Micro- Photonics six months ago and has already come to respect not only Baohua’s expertise, but also to appreciate her assistance in helping him settle into the role. “She’s very open and supportive, and it’s a huge pleasure to work with her,” David says.
“Taking over a new centre isn’t easy and we have a number of Chinese students that Baohua has helped with adapting to a new culture, which can often be very challenging.”
A positive and open attitude epitomizes Baohua’s approach to work and life. “Life should be enjoyed, and doing my science work makes me enjoy life more,” she says. In addition to her research, supervisory and teaching responsibilities, she also regularly gives talks to schoolchildren. “A teacher changed my life, and I’d like to do the same thing for the kids I speak to.”