RIA awards €2,000 Kathleen Lonsdale Chemistry Prize to Dr Yikai Xu

3 Jul 2020

Dr Yikai Xu is a recent PhD graduate of the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at Queen’s University Belfast. Image: RIA

For his potentially revolutionary PhD thesis on nanomaterials, QUB’s Dr Yikai Xu has won this year’s RIA Kathleen Lonsdale Chemistry Prize.

Dr Yikai Xu, a recent PhD graduate of Queen’s University Belfast, has said it is “like a dream come true” to be awarded this year’s Royal Irish Academy (RIA) Kathleen Lonsdale Chemistry Prize. The award is presented to the most outstanding Irish PhD thesis in the general area of the chemical sciences.

In addition to receiving the €2,000 prize, provided by Henkel, Yikai will now be put forward by the RIA to represent Ireland in the prestigious IUPAC-Solvay International Award for Young Chemists competition.

His PhD research has resulted in two ‘platform technologies’ that have led to a huge step forward in the areas of nanomaterials. The first platform technology he developed allows nanoparticles to be assembled at the interface between oil and water into a bulkier form – similar in concept to Lego blocks – which is therefore easier to see and manipulate.

“What this does is it makes them into a big thing, but they are not all fused together [and it’s] still a nanomaterial,” Yikai said. “And by manipulating the morphology, you can have it flat as a film or you can have it curled up into a ball so it becomes a 3D structure.”

A range of applications

He went on to develop a way to anchor the bulk nanomaterial so that it can be handled and shaped.

“What we want is a bulky thing that you can have in your hands that we can throw around,” he said. “And so the next thing was to turn that into a polymer and nanomaterial hybrid. So basically, we were anchoring these particles that we have assembled at the interface onto a polymer support.”

Yikai’s breakthroughs could have a range of applications such as detecting trace amounts of drugs or explosives on different surfaces such as people hands, or finding and neutralising harmful or cancer-causing chemicals in water. They can also be used to create antimicrobial surfaces, flexible conducting devices and supercapacitors.

Yikai – who is not the first winner of the RIA prize to have come from China – said it was encouraging to see international students win the award.

“It shows that as long as you actually put the work in and if you have the chemistry, your game will travel and Ireland will recognise that. I think that is really great,” he said.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic