You may complain the unpredictability of the weather that spoiled your vacation, or worry about whether your job will be taken by highly intelligent robots in near future, or whether the chemical plant near your residence is safe enough, but you may not realize that these seemingly unrelated problems may share an answer or solution deeply rooted in an emerging science.
In fact, scientists in various areas have long been puzzled by a mysterious missing of the links in their knowledge chains: No matter how much they know about the details of the systems they studied and how familiar they are with the behaviors of these systems, they know little about the fascinating complex structures usually present at the scales between a whole system and its elements. These structures can be the violent tornados, the weird neural networks, or the fluctuating reactant patterns, or many others. More to their surprise, these diverse structures in totally different systems display intriguing complexities of some underlying similarities.
Describing, forecasting and manipulating such complexity is very challenging in science from almost all disciplines, and is the bottleneck in almost all industries. Is there a way to crack such a hard nut?
Chinese scientists are among many others searching for the answers and may have found the password to a powerful toolkit for such explorations. They have, for the first time, come up with the concept of “mesoscience” to reveal the common principle governing all complexity. This methodology may apply to describing the complexity in different fields, and put it into the world’s first virtual process engineering platform.
Models and computational paradigm derived from this methodology, “mesoscience”, has been proved a success in chemical engineering and quickly adopted by enterprises around the world, including TOTAL, BASF, Shell, BP, Sinopec, PetroChina, Baosteel, Unilever to mention a few.
This is not a single case for what “mesoscience” can do or help. “Mesocience is considered as a general approach to tackle various complex systems in the real world with an unprecedented future,” said LI Jinghai, member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences, who proposed the concept.
Mesoscience, is attracting increasing attention from the world scientific community. Over 30 top scientists from USA, UK, Australia, China, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, and Hungary are teaming up in Beijing for a 3-day meeting from May 27th to May 29th focusing on the future development and application of this new concept.
The meeting draws attentions of scientists of different disciplines, including Chemistry, Mathematics, Psychology, Chemical Engineering, etc. Many of them are members or fellows of national scientific organizations of science-leading countries, and researchers of the industrial circles.
Fig 1 Discussion in progress (Photo by HE Xianfeng)
New challenging materials are emerging with superior and often multiple functionalities, such as battery materials, printing inks, catalysts, cosmetics or pharmaceutical formulations. “This kind of materials has to be formulated on different levels ranging from molecule scale to particles in the micro size regime,” said Bernd Sachweh, Vice President of Chemical & Process Engineering Asia of BASF, “In order to achieve the targeted properties the key process and reaction parameters often have to be controlled especially in the mesoscale.”
Any object, large or small, from an elementary particle to a galaxy, can act as an element to form a system with lots of such elements. Mesoscale complexity exists widely and mesoscience can be applied widely as well. That is why it can help settle problems beyond traditional methods.
Fig 2 Mesoscience for all complexity (Image by HUANG Wenlai)
We see the world from a microscale to a macroscale. Traditional theories are used to tackle macroscale or microscale problems, which divided the scientists into two camps of the holism and reductionism. However, there are unknown gaps between the individual elements and the system behavior, as the widely known saying goes “The whole is more powerful than the sum of its parts”. The key point lies in the mesoscale, or the interactions between the elements.
Mesoscience “provides common principles to consider in S&T to respond to grand challenges with advanced high level research solutions”, said Professor Augusta Maria Paci from National Research Council of Italy.
The National Natural Science Foundation of China initiated a major research program in 2002, entitled “Mechanism and Manipulation of Meso-Scales in Multi-Phase Reaction Processes”. The program has lasted for five years and the total funding has reached 200 million CNY.
“Mesoscience is not only of far reaching scientific implications but also wide industrial significance,” said GE Wei, director of mesoscience research division of the Institute of Process Engineering, Chinese Academy of Sciences. “It has been found as a key to addressing the long-lasting scaling problems lies between laboratory apparatus to commercial facilities.”
Professor Raffaella Ocone, Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, recommended mesoscience in her published paper,“this approach should be adopted not only in scientific research, but also in training next generation”. “More work is required in this area in order to sway the wider scientific community,” said Robin Batterham, former president of Austrilian Academy of Technological Science and Engineering.
International Cooperation Office, Institute of Process Engineering, Chinese Academy of Sciences, Beijing 100190, P. R. China.