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Akira Fujishima & Liu Zhongfan: A tale of two red gates

OCT . 30 2019
Peking University, Oct. 30, 2019: Akira Fujishima, born in Tokyo, 1942, is a chemist and the former president of the Tokyo University of Science. He is recognized for his discovery of the photocatalytic and superhydrophilic properties of in titanium dioxide. His contribution to the discipline of science transformed the ceramic and glass industry due to the self-cleaning properties of titanium dioxide. In addition, Liu Zhongfan, a former student of Akira Fujishima, has become the professor of College of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering at Peking University, and a member of the Chinese Academy of Science, a world-renowned research institute for the natural sciences.


Akira Fujishima and Liu Zhongfan

During the interview, Fujishima reflected deeply about his tenure at Peking University. He mentioned that “when I came to Peking University for the first time, it struck me that Peking University had a similar red gate with the University of Tokyo”. This coincidence or sign became the defining moment in their relationship, as the two forged a long-lasting teacher-student relationship that continues to grow until this day.

Behind the red gate of the University of Tokyo

In 1984, a young and ambitious Chinese student named Liu Zhongfan set foot on Japanese soil for the first time in his life. His thirst for knowledge continued to grow since acquiring a master’s degree from Yokohama National University. As he passed through the red gate of the University of Tokyo for the first time, he had only one thought on his mind, to complete his Ph. D. studies under the guidance of Professor Akira Fujishima.


The red gate of the University of Tokyo

During this time, Akira Fujishima had been working tirelessly for his research in the field of titanium dioxide. From a young age, he was inspired by the discoveries of science and technology, which eventually turned into a passion. During his Ph.D. studies at the University of Tokyo, Fujishima and his professor Kenichi Honda discovered that if sunlight and titanium dioxide are combined, water would break down into hydrogen and oxygen. This indicated that artificial photosynthesis could be mimicked using the power of the sun. Methodically, the sun would to break down water and create oxygen for the plants. According to Fujishima, many people were sceptical when the theory was first publicized, since it challenged their scientific knowledge. It was not until he published his findings in the journal Nature, in 1972, did he gain public recognition and receive the nickname of “Honda-Fujishima effect”.
 
Ever since the groundbreaking discovery of the photocatalytic properties of titanium dioxide, Fujishima has been leading a research team to further explore the subject. They have continuously attempted to deepen their knowledge on the subject by exploring new subjects such as the self-cleaning glass, anti-fogging coating, mosquito sweepers, and artificial diamonds. According to Fujishima, “titanium is an incredible substance that can be used for a variety of different purposes.”

In 1975, Fujishima became an assistant professor in the Department of Applied Chemistry at the University of Tokyo, and was eventually promoted as a full professor. After Fujishima’s promotion, Liu Zhongfan became his student. Liu saw Professor Fujishima as a role model, and he devoted himself to his study and research, hoping to someday be able to independently explore the complex field of science. According to Liu, Professor Fujishima encouraged his students to think flexibly and critically. “He never told me what to do, and instead, he just encouraged me to read a lot of articles in scientific journals and repeat experiments that I was interested in.” In the process of repeating these experiments, Liu gradually found his own research interests and ended up publishing over 10 articles. Liu said, "It is Mr. Fujishima who led me to the door of science”.


Akira Fujishima
 
In addition to the academic discussions, Liu also remembered many interesting anecdotes from Fujishima. For example, being a famous professor during that period of time meant that Fujishima received a lot of advantages such as various beer coupons. Furthermore, if Liu were to encounter difficulties or became frustrated, Fujishima would take Liu to the side; pull out several beer coupons from his pockets, and say, “was your experiment unsuccessful? Go get a drink with your friends, [and then] come back to continue your research”. The support and encouragement from Professor Fujishima left a strong impression on Liu. Until today, when he mentions the stories about himself and Professor Fujishima, he could not restrain a smile from appearing on his face.

Crossing gates: Japan and China

The story between Akira Fujishima and Liu Zhongfan did not end at the laboratory in the University of Tokyo. In the late 1990s, China was going through rapid development, and the shortage of academic talents became an obstacle. Cai Shengmin, professor of Chemistry and Molecular Engineering at Peking University and close friend of Professor Fujishima, visited Fujishima in Japan. During his visit, he asked Fujishima if he would to recommend any of his students to teach at Peking University, and to promote the field of chemistry and molecular engineering. The first person that came to Professor Fujishima’s mind was Liu Zhongfan. Fujishima believed that Liu’s meticulousness, passion and determination would be an asset to this field of science. With the encouragement and support of Professor Fujishima, Liu Zhongfan decided to return to China.

Leaving behind the red gate of the University of Tokyo was difficult. However, as Liu passed through the red gate of Peking University, he was determined to overcome the new challenges ahead of him. During the initial stage of developing modern science, China lacked the necessary equipment to perform advanced scientific investigations. Fortunately, before Liu departed from Tokyo, Fujishima gave him 64 boxes of equipment, which was valued at that time, around 8 million RMB. As Liu reminisced about his first memories of at Peking University, he mentioned, “these 64 boxes of equipment helped my laboratory at Peking University to achieve the first-class level in the world.”

Like a beacon that sheds light across the ocean to lead the ship back home, Professor Fujishima played a major role in Liu Zhongfan’s final decision of crossing the red gate of Peking University.

Behind the red gate of Peking University

Even though Liu returned to China, the emotional tie that he and Fujishima created continued to strengthen and serve as the foundation for further scientific cooperation between China and Japan.


The red gate of Peking University

Liu continued to work diligently at Peking University, yearning to acquire further international recognition for his scientific achievements. However, during this time, it was difficult for Chinese researchers to receive international recognition and to effectively communicate with foreign researchers. Knowing these obstacles, Fujishima decided to hold a symposium in China together with Liu. They invited experts from around the world to participate. With the help and encouragement of Fujishima, the first China-Japan Bilateral Symposium on Intelligent Electrophotonic Materials and Molecular Electronics (SIEMME) was held on October 31 and November 1, 1993. Fujishima, his students, and other foreign experts in their respective fields came to attend the symposium. Fujishima recalled the memories from the first meeting in China, and joked that, “in 1993, Chinese government was very strict about the electricity usage, and before November 1, nobody was permitted to use air-conditioners or heaters. On October 31, it was so cold, and we all had to wrap ourselves in blankets during the symposium.” Since 1993, SIEMME has been held yearly in China, and every year Fujishima would attend. SIEMME contributed to the professional development of Liu Zhongfan’s and other young Chinese scholars’ because they were able to communicate with first-tier international experts. In June 1993, Liu returned to China as an associate professor, and after a span of three months, Liu was promoted to a full professor.


Liu Zhongfan

In regards to his contribution to the cultivation of innovative and scientific talent, at Peking University, Akira Fujishima was honored as a guest professor in 1993. This year, on September 30th, he was awarded the Chinese Government Friendship Award, the highest honour given to foreign talents that have made significant contributions to China’s development and success. On October 15, Fujishima was awarded the honorary professor of Peking University. In recent days, Fujishima was even invited to be a guest speaker on CCTV's flagship program Voice, in which he recalled the time when spent with his Chinese students and how he forged intimate ties with China.


Fujishima was awarded honorary professor of PKU 

Although Fujishima has reached the age of 77, and Liu has been occupied with his work at Chinese Academy of Science, both of them continue to attempt to widen the frontiers of science. With a glowing light of enthusiasm, Fujishima said, “I will not retire soon. From morning to evening, I’m always thinking about science”. As for Liu, his work is always revolved around scientific research. Until this day, the two maintain a healthy relationship, and although they are in different places, their red gates will always be connected.

Written by: Hu Rong, June Tan Rui Min
Edited by: Kairun Daikoku, Zhang Jiang
Photo Credit to: VCG