Nine out of 24 pioneering articles by chemists and materials scientists


Hepeng Jia/Beijing, China

Chemists have topped a list of the most influential papers published by Chinese scientists between 2000 and 2006.

The Thomson Reuters Research Fronts Award recognised a total of 24 key journal articles - including seven chemistry papers and two from the material sciences - for their outstanding contribution to international R&D. Together the nine papers mean Chinese chemists had published more of the pioneering papers than researchers in others fields - though there were also eight physics papers on the list.

Thomson Reuters, a media and financial information firm who also provide citation and publication data, shortlisted the papers by first looking at the top 1 per cent of most highly cited publications in each field. Papers citing each other were grouped together and these groups of papers - or ’Research Fronts’ - were further narrowed down to those dominated by contributions from Chinese scientists. Thomson Reuters gave its award to the authors of one core paper from each of the 24 Research Fronts that remained after this process.

’The awards confirm that Chinese scientists have now secured a position at the forefront of global science,’ Rao Zihe, president of Nankai University, told an award ceremony on 28 May.

Organic improvement

Jiang Yaozhong at the Chengdu Institute of Organic Chemistry of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), who was lead author on two of the seven chemistry papers recognised by Thomson Reuters, the award follows decades of work to improve the efficiency of chiral organic catalysts.

Proline has attracted widespread interest, says Jiang, because it’s a simple, cheap and readily available catalyst for the aldol reactions - one of the most important carbon-carbon bond-forming reactions in organic synthesis. But the enantioselectivity induced by L-proline - the degree to which one enantiomer of a chiral product is preferentially produced in a chemical reaction - is only high for alkyl substrates. In contrast, L-proline-catalysed aldol reactions of aromatic compounds have selectivities as low as 70 per cent, Jiang says. He and his colleagues set about trying to find ways of improving that selectivity.

Thomson Reuters Research Fronts Award winners

Thomson Reuters Research Fronts Award winners

© Thomson Reuters

Proline is believed to catalyse the aldol reaction through a hydrogen-bonded intermediate. Jiang, along with student Gong Liuzhu, now working in the University of Science and Technology of China (USTC) in Hefei, and co-workers, proved that proline derivatives that contained both amine and alcohol groups formed a doubly hydrogen bonded intermediate that improved catalytic activity and selectivity across a wide range of different substrates in the aldol reaction.

Their initial study was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society in 2003 and has to date attracted more than 200 citations [1]. ’At first we just wanted to improve a catalytic process but the work . opened up new possibilities,’ says Jiang. Based on the work, Jiang’s team has published another JACS paper in 2005 to demonstrate different double hydrogen bonding organocatalysts. That paper is also one of the seven chemistry papers shortlisted by Thomson Reuters [2].

Growing nanowires

Like Jiang’s team, researchers led by Zhang Lide of the Hefei-based CAS Institute of Solid Physics also had two papers selected for Research Fronts awards - one in the field of chemistry and the other in material science - for their work on the controlled growth of zinc sulfide (ZnS) nanostructures.

Zhang ’s group have focused on the coordinated conditions required to reliably grow ZnS nanowires. Using a gold catalyst, the team successfully synthesized semiconducting ZnS nanowires in bulk quantities using a simple and cheap process. 

The paper was published in Chemical Physics Letters in 2002 [3], and was followed in 2005 by another study on the catalytic growth of ZnS nanostructure published in Advanced Functional Materials [4].

’Multidisciplinary thinking has played a key role in our work. Our physics background makes us pay particular attention to the kinetic features of the nanomaterial, so that we can better understand its growth conditions,’ Zhang told Chemistry World.

Unexpected success

Thomson Reuters also chose work by Luo Hongxia, now at the Renmin University of China in Beijing, who finished her research on the electrochemical behaviour of single-wall carbon nanotubes (SWNT) while working on her PhD at Peking University (PKU).

With her PKU advisor Li Nanqiang and collaborator Gu Zhennan, she published work in Analytical Chemistry in 2001 which showed that electrodes coated with a film of SWNTs functionalised with carboxylic acid can oxidize biomolecules such as dopamine, epinephrine, and ascorbic acid [5].

’Professor Gu had developed a highly purified carboxyl nanotube, and we immediately tested its electrochemical properties. It was the first such study published,’ says Luo.

When research on SWNT took off, their paper was highly cited. ’We never expected this to be a groundbreaking study,’ she told Chemistry World

Besides the work by Jiang, Zhang and Luo, other highlighted research in chemistry included work on three-dimensional networks of copper triazolates led by Chen Xiaoming of Sun Yat-Sen University [6], a study on enantioselective addition of phenylacetylene to aldehydes led by Wang Ren at Lanzhou University [7], research on aluminosilicates as mesoporous molecular sieves led by Xiao Fengshou at Jilin University [8], and the development of a white-light-emitting devices from a single polymer, led by Lixiang Wang at the CAS Institute of Applied Chemistry at Changchun [9].