Inside Iowa State
February 19, 1999
Leaving a (better) mark on his homeland
by Skip Derra
By his own admission, Bing-Lin Young, a high-energy physics theorist at Iowa State, never really paid much attention to environmental problems. He was too immersed in working out a theoretical explanation for what nature does on a subatomic scale to care about pollution.
But Young's involvement in a fledgling International Institute of Theoretical and Applied Physics (IITAP) project changed all that. It also has brought him closer to his birth country, which his family fled 50 years ago.
Young is IITAP's coordinator for the Sustainable Development in Henan (SDH) project. SDH is a small but ambitious effort to help China manage its explosive economic growth in an environmentally friendly way. The project brings together Iowa State researchers with counterparts from several of China's leading science organizations and universities.
Sustainable development is a way of fostering economic growth while providing responsible stewardship of the environment.
Today, developing nations like China are looking for ways to allow their economies to grow and meet the needs of their people without damaging land, water and air.
But there are many pathways to sustainable development and there is no clear consensus on how best to proceed, according to Joel Snow, executive associate director of IITAP.
"Because China is the leading developing nation, the deal it strikes with the industrialized world will be seen as a bellwether for what other developing nations do," Snow said.
For Young, work on the project fulfills several needs, including serving as a bridge between the country he has long adopted and the country in which he was born. It also gives him a chance to leave a mark for the better on his homeland.
"I see this as a very challenging problem, and as a high energy physicist, I always welcome a challenge," Young said.
Young and most of his family fled mainland China in 1949 for Taiwan in the final tumultuous days of the Chinese revolution, as the Communists led by Mao Tse-Tung took over the country.
"When we left China, we left in a rush," Young recalls. "We had almost the last flight from Shanghai to Taiwan," he said, explaining how his family left behind his older sister.
When Young returned to China in 1979 to seek out his sister, he returned to a place that did not fit his "fantasy" of the homeland. In stark contrast to what he remembered, he saw a country with few, if any, modern conveniences like indoor plumbing or air conditioning in rural areas. He saw a country with open sewage. He saw a country that was recklessly polluting its environment while trying to forge ahead with economic development and modernization.
"When you travel through China, you can sometimes see the smog," Young said. "There will be this yellow smoke from the burning of coal that just hangs over the highway. Every-where you go, you'd see this smoke."
Today, Henan province is not only one of China's largest provinces (with more than 90 million people), it also is seriously polluted. It is typical of what has happened to most of China. With an economic growth rate averaging 8 to 10 percent each year for the past 20 years, the country has crammed the equivalent of 100 years of development into two decades.
"China is a good experimental ground," Young said of the SDH project. "It is a large region with a lot of people and it is growing very fast. There is a lot of potential because the Chinese people work very hard and once they set their minds to it, they can make rapid progress."
The SDH project has several goals and sub-projects. In general, SDH will introduce new technologies for energy production, for utilizing what was traditionally considered waste and for developing methods to clean up the waterways, the air and the land.
In one SDH project, Iowa State researchers are working with their Chinese counterparts to transfer biomass gasifier technology to the region. The biomass gasifier was developed by Robert Brown, director of the Center for Coal and the Environment, and his colleagues.
In a rural area of Nanyang, Brown and his counterparts will show how the biomass gasifier can convert agricultural wastes -- such as leftover vegetation in corn, wheat and rice fields -- into gas for cooking and heating. Currently, that vegetation is burned, causing significant air pollution.
Other efforts under way, Young said, include methods for cleaning up the water and the air of Henan province. But no matter what technologies are transferred, Young sees education as the key.
"Environmental education is an indispensable part of the project," Young said. "We need to tell people to watch out. But it's more than telling them to turn off the light if they are not in the room, or turn off the water if they aren't using it. We need to cut waste and pollution and look at what our real needs are for today.
"The environment is an important issue today," he said, like nuclear proliferation was in the 1970s and 1980s. "If we are not careful, we can make a hell of a mess of Earth. We can end up living in a very miserable condition."
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