Cover Dr Tom Kong (Photo: Affa Chan/Tatler Hong Kong)

Scientists like Dr Tom Kong of Master Dynamic are fighting the spread of the coronavirus with technology

In a quick, well-practised motion, Dr Tom Kong snaps on a pair of synthetic blue shoe covers and steps into a small glass chamber, where any particle of dust that might have settled on his body is blasted away by a steady stream of air for 10 seconds. As a door opens to admit him into a sterile cleanroom, Kong turns and says, by way of introduction to his work, “Diamonds, in fact, are not only a lady’s best friend. They are also a scientist’s best friend.”

As the CEO and co-founder of Master Dynamic, Kong oversees several high-tech labs in the region, including this one in Hong Kong Science Park at Shatin that specialises in quantum technology research, with a particular focus on practical applications using tiny carbon particles produced by high-energy processing—so small they are called “nanodiamonds”.

Throughout the black room, microscopes, computers and monitors set a scene that resembles something from a sci-fi movie. Since 2011, the company has specialised in research and development for various industries, including techniques to distinguish natural diamonds from lab-produced ones or counterfeits, and biotechnology applications that have great potential for saving lives. In one example, nanodiamonds might make it possible for doctors to target chemotherapy treatment to cancerous cells even before they develop into detectable tumours.

But since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Kong and his colleagues have pivoted to something more practical—the production of protective face masks to address severe shortages around the world. Master Dynamic is helping New World Development to make tens of thousands of them daily to support its Creating Shared Value initiative. Meanwhile, Kong has also fast-tracked the development of a more experimental design, a reusable mask with a specialised nanodiamond coating. If that mask, which is currently being tested, proves successful, it would neutralise the virus upon contact with the nanodiamonds, which are statically charged to act like microscopic stun guns that “zap” bacteria and viruses.

“They instantly disintegrate,” Kong says. “It’s almost like magic.”

Kong was born in Hangzhou and moved to Hong Kong when he was seven, but spent much of his adult life in America following his graduate and post-graduate degrees in mechanical engineering at UCLA. He worked for Rockwell International and General Electric before returning to Asia in 2006 as a professor at The Chinese University of Hong Kong. But it is his research work in the last decade that has brought Kong the most satisfaction, especially when collaborating with biologists, chemists and other specialists to collectively find solutions to all sorts of challenges.

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In traditional jewellery making, for example, the creation of individual settings is a painstaking artisanal process that is increasingly becoming a dying art, but Kong has developed a technique to grind metals into such fine powder that an 18-karat gold chain for a bracelet can be produced on a 3D printer and watch parts like a silicon hairspring can be produced to such a degree of thinness that they appear transparent. For Chow Tai Fook, the jewellery company headed by Adrian Cheng, Master Dynamic invented technology to make a transparent marking on each of its T Mark diamonds, including a nano mark and number to enable reliable traceability.

Cheng’s extensive financial donations and efforts to produce face masks and other supplies, as well as the new Creating Shared Value platform of New World Development, inspired Kong to take action by applying technology to the problem of the coronavirus.

“Technology, if you use it wisely, can change a whole industry,” he says.

The advanced masks are being developed as quickly as possible to help save lives, of course, but Kong also notes the potential benefit to the environment, considering the massive amount of waste being produced by daily use of disposable masks. While his company has other proprietary projects in the works that could result in important medical breakthroughs and may take years to achieve, the urgency of the current crisis has only served as a reminder to Kong of the importance of sharing information with colleagues.

“My job is to get all the information, pass it along to the team and give them guidance to get things done quick,” Kong says. “I remind them I have never failed any project. If you never declare failure, then one day you can solve all the problems. This is our philosophy.”

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