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Visiting research students praise Polymer IRC's state-of-the-art facilities


Left to right: Prof Adrian Kelly, Mr Zeyu Wang, Prof Phil Coates, Mr Kaixin Sun, Mr Yufei Ma and Ms Xiaolei Wang

AN at-home PCR test which could detect Covid-19 as well as other diseases is one of the projects being pioneered by students who spent six months on a research exchange at the University of Bradford.

The test, which is currently only conducted in laboratories in the UK, could be a game-changer for future healthcare. 

Kaixin Sun, a PhD student from the prestigious Beijing University of Chemical Technology of China (BUCT), worked on his ‘microfluidic detection device,’ at the University’s Polymer Interdisciplinary Research Centre (IRC).

Kaixin, who is specialising in micro and nano polymer technology, said: “It would be a portable PCR device which would detect viruses such as Covid-19 and other diseases with greater accuracy. It would mean you can get the results at home, without sending it to a laboratory.”

Kaixin Sun, from BUCT, pictured at the Polymer IRC during his six month placement at the University of Bradford

Pictured above: Kaixin Sun working at the University of Bradford's Polymer IRC

His two fellow BUCT exchange students, Yufei Ma and Zeyu Wang, worked on equally exciting projects which could help businesses save money and the environment. 

Yufei, 25, who has come from the Electrical and Mechanical Engineering faculty at BUCT, is working on his PhD in polymers and foaming technologies. 

Yufei said: “Enhancing the foaming process means you can produce lighter, better quality materials. It’s low carbon technology so it’s better for the environment and more cost effective. 

“One example I have worked on is with elastic polymers. These could be applied to the sole of a shoe, making them lighter and more comfortable.”

Visiting BUCT student Yufei Ma at work in the Polymer IRC

Pictured above: Yufei Ma at the lab

Zeyu, 26, who is in his fourth year of a simultaneous Master's and PhD in automation, researched applying a mathematical model - known as the Wiener-Hammerstein model - to the extrusion process of creating synthetic materials. 

Extrusion is the process by which a material is pushed through a hole or ‘die’ under pressure, in order to create a specific shape, such as tubes or sheets. 

In manufacturing, testing different temperatures and pressures to achieve the optimum conditions for this process can mean wasting time, money and materials. Zeyu’s idea is to apply a mathematical model to determine the parameters to avoid such waste. 

His previous work was in computer science, not polymers. 

However, having met Kaixin at Bradford, the pair have decided they will collaborate on Kaixin’s project in the future. 

The trio will continue to work on their research back in China, while maintaining strong links with the University of Bradford. 

They were supervised by Professor Adrian Kelly and Professor Ben Whiteside with assistance particularly from Dr Michael Hebda and Dr Rob Innes, along with Professor Phil Coates, Director of the Polymer IRC. 

'Spirit of collaboration'

Dr Coates said: “It is an ongoing delight to have early career research exchanges with overseas partners operating again after the lockdown. 

“In our experience, there is great mutual benefit for the researcher and our own staff, and the exchanges promote strongly the spirit of collaboration between institutions, leading to more opportunities and joint publications - a real ‘win-win!’”

Since 2009, the Polymer IRC has hosted more than 70 research visits for scholars from Chinese Universities and research institutes. 

BUCT - where Professor Coates has been an Honorary Professor since 2009 - is one of the Centre’s long-term research collaborators.

The visiting students arrived in Bradford in February as part of the University’s Erasmus Plus programme - and have hailed the excellent facilities at the Polymer IRC. 

Yufei said: “The facilities are very good, very comprehensive and easy to use. There is a lot of state-of-the-art equipment, like high-speed cameras and lots of 3D printers which we hadn’t used before.”

Left to right: Prof Adrian Kelly, Mr Zeyu Wang, Prof Phil Coates, Mr Kaixin Sun, Mr Yufei Ma and Ms Xiaolei Wang

Pictured above, from left to right: Professor Adrian Kelly, Zeyu Wang, Professor Phil Coates, Kaixin Sun, Yufei Ma and International Collaboration Manager, Xiaolei Wang

It was the first time any of them had been to the UK. 

Kaixin said: “The Polymer IRC is very famous and Professor Phil Coates cooperates with many universities in China, including BUCT.

“I wanted to come here to work with Professor Coates and to see a different life and enhance myself.”

He enjoyed living on campus and made the most of the gym at the University’s Unique Fitness. 

He said: “The surroundings are nice, with flowers and plenty of fresh air. The library is spacious. 

“We don’t have a fitness centre within easy access at BUCT - we tend to play sports like football - but here, we could leave the lab and go to the gym to lift weights for a couple of hours.”

Zeyu liked the cooler weather, while Yufei was taken by the ducks on the lake outside their University accommodation at The Green

He said: “In China, you only see birds at our university, no other animals. In the UK, the nature is so nice.”

Making friends and new skills

Another difference was having to get used to cooking for themselves. 

Yufei added: “The biggest difference between study in the UK and China is that, in China, we eat in a canteen and don’t need to cook. We have six or four students in one bedroom - or two people for PhD students - and there is only a bed and a desk, nothing else.

“You have to queue up at a separate building for a shower. 

“At the University of Bradford, we have our own bathroom and kitchen. We have been practising our cooking.”

In fact, they were so impressed by their barbecuing skills, they talked about opening a barbecue shop!

On Friday nights, they trained with the University’s basketball team, where they made some good friends. 

And while their English was already excellent, they picked up some British slang too. 

Kaixin said: “We have learned that ‘Cheers’ can mean ‘Thank you.’”

During their stay, the students made the most of their weekends by travelling to other places, such as Scotland, York and London, to absorb the best of British culture. 

Their visit marks another success of the Polymer IRC’s Science Bridges China research platform and UK-China Advanced Materials Research Institute, which we lead.