Far East pioneers11/10/17Science & Technology
Finnish atmospheric scientists export knowledge and observational technology to China, possibly leading to fruitful business.
If air quality problems could be solved by banning the most dangerous pollutants, it would be relatively easy to save the world. We could set legal restrictions on the use of certain products and wait for the result. But unfortunately, it is not that simple. The chemical cocktail now prevailing in the air above some cities behaves non-linearly and, above all, in a way that remains unknown. The mixture of toxic anthropogenic substances, Nature’s own emissions, and the complex microphysics of the atmosphere may negate all the well-intentioned actions of environmentalists.
For example, abolishing one harmful substance from the air could deteriorate air quality, or turn out to be a waste of time, with no impact one way or the other. In other words, the order of measures and the way they are implemented matters.
Joni Kujansuu, the research co-ordinator in the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences (FCoE), explained: “It is, of course, important to reduce the emissions and to substitute the most dangerous chemicals with alternative substances – but an action with the best intentions may cause more harm than good.
“The boundary layer of the Earth-Atmosphere system consists of interconnected material and energy flows, part of which form feedback loops. The loops are kind of vicious circles which could surprise us in many ways, both pleasantly and unpleasantly.
“By carefully exploring the non-linearities of the ecosystem, we may find cost-effective, efficient and safe ways of decreasing pollutants,” he concluded.
This is exactly what Kujansuu and his colleagues are doing at the moment in Beijing, China, and in several other cities in China, where Finnish atmospheric scientists have recently signed a new agreement with Chinese chemists to fight the air quality problems together.
Kujansuu said: “The main focus of our co-operation will be in academic, curiosity-driven research. We are thus working to progress the theories of the physics and chemistry of the atmosphere, which means we are drilling deep into the molecular level of various reactions. This may sound theoretical, but the solid knowledge base, for sure, is a prerequisite for economically optimal environmental protection. Later, it also helps the engineers to innovate technical solutions to air quality problems.”
SMEAR-technology makes the difference
The agreement, worth nearly €20m, was signed between the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences (FCoE) and the Beijing University of Chemical Technology (BUCT). According to Kujansuu, the contractors complement each other perfectly.
In the field of aerosol research, the Finnish Centre of Excellence is probably the best in the world. The centre is directed by physicist and academician Professor Markku Kulmala, an internationally recognised researcher in the area of geosciences. Kulmala and his colleagues are well known for several scientific breakthroughs, as well as for industrial and commercial innovations like particle counters.
All of the achievements of Kulmala’s team are based on the so-called ‘SMEAR’ (Station for Measuring Earth Surface-Atmosphere Relations) observation stations. The stations are technically specific; laboratory-type set-ups located in various terrains, such as forests or urban areas, and are equipped to measure the versatile energy and material flows of the ecosystem.
Supported by long-term measurement data, Finnish atmospheric scientists have succeeded in revealing, amongst other things, how the tiny aerosol particles in the air are formed.
The expertise in measurement technology and empirical field work is exactly what the Chinese partners want to learn more about.
“We are here to transfer the knowledge we have, and to get some new ideas developed by our Chinese partner in return. The Beijing University of Chemical Technology is famous for its excellent theoreticians,” said Kujansuu.
SMEAR boosts business
The recently signed contract was not the first to exist between Finnish and Chinese scientists in the field of atmospheric research. There is a jointly established SMEAR-station in Nanjing, which was inaugurated in 2012.
Kujansuu explained: “The Nanjing station is part of our large scientific programme ‘Pan Eurasian Experiment’. We aim at establishing a worldwide network of observational stations, but it is probably the boreal forest area which plays the most crucial role behind various climatic phenomena. This is why we have started the project in a zone extending from Scandinavia over Siberia to China.”
In total, there are six SMEAR-stations, the oldest of which has been producing measurement data in Finland since 1991. “We have several negotiations going on around the world about new stations,” Kujansuu said.
When it comes to business possibilities attached to the new agreement between the Finnish and Chinese scientists, Kujansuu is optimistic: “We know by experience that SMEAR-technology is highly applicable.”
Finnish atmospheric scientists have heretofore successfully established three spin-off firms, one manufacturing special censors and another producing particle counters. The third, the recently founded SMEAR Ltd, offers consulting in environmental monitoring and technology.
Along with his duties as a research co-ordinator, Kujansuu works as a CEO of SMEAR Ltd. He commented: “I have thus two fields to proceed in China: academic co-operation on the one hand, and new business on the other.”
A SMEAR-station usually consists of a measurement tower or mast, versatile
up-to-date electronic and mechanical instruments, maintenance buildings, power supplies and shelter for the staff. The station offers data on the complex material and energy flows prevailing between the Earth’s surface and the atmosphere.
Some of the SMEAR-station buildings may look like cosy cottages, but they are, however, filled with laboratory equipment, and the measurement tower may reach 128m in height.
“Completely incomprehensible patterns”
Kujansuu’s career in China started with the study of Chinese letters and abstract mathematics
“I do not understand anything.”
This was the feeling of Joni Kujansuu when he sat alone in his apartment with a book in front of him, having decided to start a new life in China.
It was the middle of the 1990s. The Finnish economy was drifting towards the verge of bankruptcy, and the unemployment rates rose higher than ever before. Most young Finnish people felt their home country had nothing to offer.
Kujansuu was one of them. He was, however, ready to work for his future somewhere else, and had therefore decided to leave. He chose to do his master’s studies in China, with the aim of becoming acquainted with local society and culture, too.
After some tedious and time-consuming arrangements, he found himself sitting in a tiny place in the city of Beijing, studying to pass the entrance exam to the Chinese university system. There, he understood he had at least three new problems.
First, the entrance exam included high-level abstract mathematics he had not studied before; second, the maths study materials were only available in Chinese, which he did not understand a word of; and third, he did not have much money for the language courses.
“I was staring at the Chinese characters on the paper, and flashes of complex mathematical symbols between them. I did not know where to start,” remembers Kujansuu, laughing. “But I did not think of giving up. I read and did exercises around-the-clock for several months.”
He passed the exam.
Higher maths written in Chinese was not the only problem he experienced as he worked towards the heart of Chinese society and its science world, but it was nevertheless a very memorable litmus test.
Today, Kujansuu is fluent in both Chinese and Japanese. He completed his master’s thesis in Beijing, and went on to complete his doctoral studies in Nagano, Japan, where he specialised in forest ecosystems and worked for several years as a business consultant.
“Finnish companies wanting to enter the Japanese market hired me to help with the bridge-building,” said Kujansuu. “I learned a lot during those years and, what is more, found my spouse there.”
He returned to a now-recovered Finland to begin a job as a junior researcher, which was soon changed to a position in the Finnish Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences (FCoE). Not surprisingly, his skills in Chinese and Japanese, as well as his expertise in sinocultures, were discovered as the centre initiated its first projects with the Far East.
Kujansuu now lives in Finland with his Japanese wife, but spends several months every year in China and Japan.
The various tasks connected with the versatile scientific programmes of FCoE in the Far East take all his time, leaving no opportunity for his own research any more. “This is nevertheless such an interesting field of work that I do not miss my laboratory sessions,” Kujansuu said. “But, of course, I am happy to have the basic understanding of scientific work. Without it I would be quite lost with all the research-related issues on my desk.
“In my current position I can also use the experience I obtained during my times in Japanese business. I am quite sure that the Sino-Finnish co-operation in the area of observational technology will lead to many new industrial applications and products.”
Finnish Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences in a nutshell
The Finnish Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Sciences consists of 250 researchers, including physicists, chemists, forest scientists, mathematicians, etc. They publish 250 scientific articles every year, many of which are featured in Nature and Science. Together, the centre’s scientists have established three successful spin-off companies: Airmodus Ltd manufactures particle counters, Karsa Ltd creates special censors, and SMEAR Ltd offers consultation services in the field of atmospheric technology and knowhow.
The centre is directed by physicist and academician Markku Kulmala, the most cited geoscientist in the world.
Centre of Excellence in Atmospheric Science
University of Helsinki
This article will appear in Pan European Networks: Science & Technology issue 25, which will be published in December, 2017.