Still Waters Run Deep—— Dr. Zhang Xiaochen


Interviewer:Xin Li  Former senior editor and reporter of Central Media, now columnist and commentator, resident in Shanghai.

Respondents:Zhang Xiaochen, Manager of Electrical Design Department of Intelligent Electrification Research Institute, Nottingham (Yuyao), International Senior Research Fellow, University of Nottingham Ningbo, Fellow of Royal Aeronautical Society, UK. He has been engaged in theoretical research of high performance and high power density motors for a long time, and has made rich achievements in multi-performance analysis of electromagnetic, thermal, mechanical stress and fluid dynamics. In the past five years, he has published more than 70 papers in top journals of electrical engineering, which have been cited more than 1,000 times (the number of highly cited papers is more than 1/4). He has given keynote reports for more than 20 international conferences in the electrical field, and served as the reviewer of 6 top international journals in the electrical field. More than 20 Chinese invention patents have been authorized, of which 5 have been applied in actual products.


  01. Next-generation starter generator     

Dr. Zhang Xiaochen, in our first encounter, struck me as an amiable, approachable personage, though his qualities as a quintessential scientist quickly showed through: Precision, concentration, succinctness, and a reluctance to become too discursive.

This high degree of concentration is also discernible in his choice of specialty and career. From his undergraduate to PhD studies, his specialty had been consistently Electrical Machinery and Electrical Engineering, at Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT). He has seen many vicissitudes of life since, though high speed electric machinery has been the one and only scope of inquiry he has been engaged in, so far.

As one report about him claims, Zhang has been “instrumental in the design of our next-generation starter generator, attaining state-of-art sophistication in light of relevant metrics compared with global leader in the sector, with its efficiency surpassing the existing system for Boeing 787.”

Zhang revealed that this refers to the high-speed starter system which is one of his major achievements. It would be used in the next-generation aircraft, among them C-919 and C-929 developed by COMAC, the counterpart of Boeing 787.

“In comparison with existing airplanes, one of the major characteristics of this type of aircraft is the surge in power demand, from the current 100 kW to 300 or even 500 kW, while the weight and volume of the motor would remain unchanged, meaning provision of more than three times more power for unit weight or volume. Incidentally, such super efficient generators are also a major means to leverage carbon reductions in the aviation sector,” said Zhang.   

Zhang’s research findings have already passed relevant copper birds tests in 2020 in term of power generation and distribution, with relevant assessments by domestic experts suggesting that its relevant metrics in power generation have met advanced international standards, and are superior to Boeing 787 in term of these metrics.

“At the moment we are trying to extend the application of the results, in the hope of raising the power of electric generator to the tune of megawatts, aiming ultimately at fully electrically powered regional aircraft, as is the general trend in global, as well as Chinese, aviation,” said Zhang, adding that he hoped his research might contribute more to smart and green transports in China.

As a matter of fact, Zhang’s research findings have already found uses in surface transportation, such as in supplying mobile power source for NEVs. “We have developed high-speed diesels that could be used on vehicles in emergency rescue mission,” said Zhang, who explained further that in natural disasters, such as earthquakes, given the high probability of suspensions in power supply, these small generators capable of generating power to the tune of 100-200 kW on a truck could provide timely, dependable power supply in a rescue mission scenario.


02.Payoffs from extensive experiences    

Dr. Zhang was not a little surprised when asked to moralize a little bit from his wanderings over the years across different regions, systems, and cultures, for he had never looked back on his past experience from this perspective. Such introspection did afford him some food for thought: He has indeed come a long way to be where he is today.
Zhang was born in Henan, a province central to the origin of Chinese civilization yet whose demographics and its relatively lack of prestigious institutions of higher learning means that sitting for the college entrance exams there is notoriously competitive. Predictably, prior to college entrance, Zhang’s meanderings have been chiefly confined to within the province, or the schools he attended, as success in exams requires years of application and concentration. “Since I had been studying in the Northeast from my undergraduate years through my doctoral studies, you might notice that in my speech the Northeastern accent is even more pronounced than my Henan accent,” said Zhang, with a chuckle.
If anything, Zhang’s twelve years in Harbin Institute of Technology did hint something about his dedication and concentration. Given the formative influence of the years, it is not surprising that Zhang’s values, outlook on life, and intellectual equipment are in a sense all the products of this period.
“Of course, there is no need to stress HIT’s rigor in academic training, but culturally I had also benefited much from the experience. For one thing, the people in the broad-minded people in the Northeast taught me how to give assessment from the overall situation. Whether in terms of culture or my character, the Northeast did leave its indelible marks on me,” Zhang said.
“From a cultural perspective, Beijing stands out for its strict management and regulation. For instance, given the more laissez faire style of the Northeast, a lot of issues that could have been settled via oral communication have to undergo stricter protocol in Beijing,” Dr Zhang said, adding that this strictness in term of procedural correctness proved beneficial later when he was in UK, by enabling him to adapt to the British style of work quickly.
So British style is distinct in term of their attitude towards work, in their relentless pursuit of constant improvement, and in their methodical approach whereby allotment of time for a specific project gets broken down into discrete pieces covering the minutest details of the project.
“A ten-day project in China might get done in a month or longer in the UK. This might appear to be deliberate allowance for more time, with the caveat that there must be the greatest, perfectionist attention to the minutest details,” Zhang said.
“It might take them five years to turn out something that we could toss off in a couple of years, but you have to confess that the motors or drivers they have come up with are extremely dependable, and this painstaking attention to details has done me enormous good, particularly in view of the many projects I got involved later during my stay in the UK,” Zhang recalled.
Culture-wise, Ningbo, where Zhang works now, does not signify much in terms of regional differences, but represents more as a culmination of the three previous work-study experiences. Perhaps the more tolerant, more permissive culture of Ningbo appears more hospital to him, or perhaps at this stage Zhang -- who had seen life’s vicissitudes -- tends to be less susceptible to external perturbations. Rather than be transformed by the world, Zhang is now more keen on changing the world himself.

03.'There is recompense for all your have suffered'   

As Zhang revealed, given the relatively low college admissions rate in Henan Province, partly as a result of demographics of the province, sitting for college exams in Henan has long been a nightmarish experience. Some people have ranked college admissions across the country in six levels from “easy” to “hellish,” and Henan easily ranks top in the “hellish” category.
But Zhang did not seem to show insufferable misery when reminiscing about that period. Rather, he finds that experience “very necessary and very fulfilling.”
 “If I am to say something by way of a suggestion to senior high school children today, it would like this: there is recompense for everything we have suffered. Viewed from another perspective, college entrance strictly on scores is about the only major juncture in life where the choice is made eminently in light of the principle of justice,” Zhang observed emphatically.

04.‘Hale and hearty for half a century of work’   

Zhang love wellness and sports, with his particular preference for badminton and pumping iron.
“You can see I am rather on the lean side, with relatively low body fat rate” said Zhang, apparently rather pleased with his well balanced body – an assessment agreed upon by many of his colleagues, with one commenting that “his scholarship and physique are both top-notch.”
Zhang chose badminton as an elective in his doctoral studies, and has been keeping at it ever since. “I has been a titlist in our little group numbering over 100 people,” said Zhang. Even his athletic pursuit betrays his dedication and concentration.
“I have heard that someone strives to be ‘Hale and hearty for half a century of working career’, and found it thought-provoking. It is easy to see that all your future achievement and halo will hinge on your health, for you can enjoy your achievement only when you are free from any diseases. To sum up, you participate in sports with the benefit of being able to work better,” Zhang said.
Zhang also mentioned his newly developed hobby of drawing pictures. “My wife happens to be in the animation sector, and I have acquired this hobby as a way of keeping up with her on her home turf,” he said with a smile. “Sometimes we also choose to communicate through pictures. Simple still life and sketches can be a conduit for pent-up feelings, as well as a means of fostering feelings for each other within the family,” Zhang added.
So sometimes when they happen to find themselves in a place they both find impressive, they would linger, trying to document the scene in sketches. “For instance, when we visited the UK not long ago, we had come across quite a few dreamy, ancient mansions, with a giant tree in the courtyard full of flowers. We would take some photos, which we would then scrutinize in leisure, and see if we could recreate the impressions with our pencils,” Zhang said.
Still waters run deep. With his firmness and poise Dr Zhang, who turned 41 this year, has already achieved something significant in the field of electrical starter, and we have good reasons to expect more from him.