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.