Ziyan Zhang

Covidien Corporate Fellow

Arts & Sciences: Chemistry | PhD


Cohort 2006


Graduated 2012

Partner University:

Peking University


Career: Marketing Research Analyst | Inteum Company | Seattle, Washington, USA

I want to share my recent updates …

I have been working in the technology transfer field after graduation, and have always tried to help Chinese universities develop their own program. I have talked to numerous universities, government officials and private companies. The Chinese government has strong support for universities to better manage and commercialize their IP’s,  but there are many hurdles to overcome. Recently, I hosted a delegation from Shanghai University of Traditional Chinese Medicine and connected them with the technology transfer offices at University of Washington and Benaroya Research Institute.

I also recently published an article in a government-sponsored IP journal comparing the technology commercialization process in the U.S. universities with the current situation in China and gave some advice.

I feel that the Academy is a perfect place to discuss technology transfer, as it is such a comprehensive process involving science, law, business, and social science. WashU has an excellent technology transfer program through the Office of Technology Management. I know they are keen to promote their program to students and faculty. I think it would be mutually beneficial to have them do a seminar or lunch keynote for the Academy.

I will be happy to discuss technology transfer practices in the global landscape and especially China if there is interest.

Please contact Angie Rahaman if you have interest.

Scholar Highlights

Biofuel: A Savior of Our Future?

Many a time, my mom complained to me that everything in China is getting more and more expensive. Vegetables are now triple the price of two years ago and pork is becoming a luxury at dinner. I learned the reasons for this from the New York Times, which reported that developing countries are demanding more meat and people are trying to make fuel out of corn. Well, if we pay more for our food but make the air cleaner, that’s still wroth is, right?

Viewing the problem from the perspective of a chemist, the picture starts to get more complicated.

The first problem is that making biofuels, especially from corn, is not energy efficient. Photosynthesis, the process whereby plants store energy, is quite inefficient, meaning the energy density of plants is far lower than that of fossil fuels. Getting a meaningful amount of energy from plants requires fertilizing thousands of acres of land, collecting plants from widespread farming areas, and transporting grain and ethanol. Each link in this production chain requires energy. In the end, corn ethanol generates – at most – only 30% more energy than it consumes in the manufacturing process. According to Martin Eberhard, CEO of Tesla Motors, the U.S. would need to use up 68% of its agricultural land for corn to provide 50% of its fuel needs for transportation.

But what about the environment? Ethanol burns much cleaner than petroleum, to be sure. But consider the effects of the whole industry, producing ethanol consumes a considerable amount of fuel and releases green-house gases, sulfur dioxides, and other pollutants. It’s also behind a wave of deforestation in developing countries. Countries like Brazil, Indonesia, and Thailand are turning their forests into farmlands. Tons of carbon dioxide has been released into the air by burning these forests, millions of wild animals have lost their homes, and huge tracts of land have been polluted by fertilizers and pesticides. Biofuels are in fact a disaster for the environment!

OK, I might not oppose biofuel programs in the U.S. if they could at least stimulate the economy. Unfortunately, they don’t. Huge subsidies and profit from corn are not passed on to farmers, but instead have gone to the agricultural companies, processors, and other middlemen. Meanwhile, inflation triggered by land shortages is making basic resources from feedstock to water, fertilizer and food more expensive. Low-income urban residents and poor farmers are tragic victims in this game.

So if corn ethanol does not help solve the energy crisis, why have authorities supported it? Why is so much research passionately devoted to it? It seems that biofuels make the government happy. They help soothe people’s nerves about energy shortages. Politicians are happy because they can win votes by supporting “renewable energy” and get more backing from the agricultural companies. Research institutes are happy because they can get funding. Nevertheless, I am not happy and mother earth is not happy.

Corn ethanol is not a responsible solution in today’s energy crisis. In fact, it’s not a solution at all. Two of the most precious resources on the earth are land and water, and the ultimate goal of any energy program should be to make more energy with less land and water.

Of course, the specifics of solutions should vary from place to place. Ethanol may be a good solution in Brazil, where it comes from highly productive tropical sugarcane and doesn’t need to be irrigated or fertilized. In the U.S., however, the climate is not generous enough to allow people to dig energy from the soil, not even when they use switchgrass, the topic of much of today’s hottest debates.

On the other hand, the American terrain provides other opportunities, such as solar panels in Arizona, or hydropower in the north. Nuclear power is another potent alternative, but politicians will need to work harder to prevent nuclear weapon proliferation.

New energy sources are just part of the story. Changing our life style to be more efficient is of equal, if not greater importance. It is unlikely that anything can bring gasoline prices down if we stay addicted to pickups and SUVs. And up to 75% of the electricity used in the U.S. today could be saved with efficiency measures. Energy efficient devices, sustainable manufacturing, an organized recycling systems could save more energy than one can imagine.

The energy crisis relentlessly confronts everyone in the world, but ethanol is hardly a universal solution. We need to work together to find real solutions appropriate to each region and at the same time optimize our life style and embrace a sustainable era.

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