C929 to soar on starter generator developed by UNNC team led by Dr. Zhang He


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

Respondents:Alan Zhang  He is currently a professor of motor drive at the University of Nottingham Ningbo, a doctoral supervisor, executive director of the Nottingham Electrication Centre,a fellow of the Royal Aeronautical Society, a leading talent in scientific and technological innovation in Zhejiang Province, director of the Zhejiang Aviation Electrification Engineering Technology Center, and a key experiment for multi-electric aircraft in Zhejiang Province Director.


Wenzhou in Zhejiang Province is Chinese entrepreneurship reincarnate, with people there sometimes known as “Oriental Jews,” though an authentic Jew would feel obliged to explain, to the effect that, in addition to Rockefellers, they also have in their midst Albert Einstein, Sir Alexander Fleming …

And Wenzhou had been so stigmatized in the Chinese national psyche that it was the starting point in my recent interview with Zhang He, professor at Power Electronics, Machines and Control Research Group of University of Nottingham, Ningbo, China (UNNC). He is also director of Nottingham Electrification Research Institute Co., Ltd., a research-focused company held by University of Nottingham, Ningbo.

As a Wenzhou native himself, Zhang first rejected the popular bias against the Wenzhou people by citing a simple fact: That of all mathematicians brought up in China since 1949, nearly half of them have been from Wenzhou. This is probably not surprising, for whether in business engagement or academic pursuit, a down-to-earth attitude, diligence and adaptability all count as virtues.

After successfully developing the starter generator for C929, China’s self-developed 280-seat jetliner under Commercial Aircraft Corporation of China Ltd (COMAC), Zhang is now involved in another research project with COMAC, though it is still at a stage he feels reluctant to divulge.

Zhang has come a long way since his days as a postgraduate from Zhejiang University twenty years ago. After graduating from the university in 2002, Zhang decided to study for a MA in the University of Nottingham in the UK.

When asked if he would like to pursue a continuous academic project combining MA and PhD studies – given his stellar academic record – his reply was that, well, he was not interested, for that would entail an extra four years’ of study, while one of the advantages of a MA in the United Kingdom is its relative cost-efficiency in terms of time.

Apparently, career prospect was still clearly on his radar, even in his academic engagement at this advanced stage.

His predicament, however, was not eased one year after, when his study results remained distinguished. When Zhang discussed with his tutor the possibility of his continuing into doctoral studies, the tutor was approbative, assuring him that his record was good enough to earn him full scholarship.

The scholarship, to a tune of a million yuan (US$142,000), saw him through the four years of doctoral studies, though at the end of the journey he was still unsure if he was cut out for research.

Looking around, he saw fellow folks from Wenzhou, after prosecuting their doctoral studies, branching out into all kinds of business that could be imagined: petroleum trade, banking houses. Some also remained for further research, but all were doing pretty well.

Then he brought up the subject of “Oriental Jews” with a visiting scholar, a Spanish roommate in his 50s. The roommate homed in on Zhang’s singular sunk cost, citing his stellar academic record, and the fact that he was at an age most productive for academic pursuit. “More important, you do not dislike research. As a matter of fact, you enjoy it. It is just you do not know what to do,” the seasoned researcher observed.

To this day, Zhang remains thankful to the roommate, for helping him make up his mind.

After finishing his doctoral studies, and a five-year stint working in the UK, he returned to UNNC in 2014, in the footsteps of an alumnus. He set up his own research team there, and has since come a long way in cutting edge scientific research.

Thanks to the team’s dedication, they have come up with a new starter generator for C929.

Notwithstanding the glamour generally associated with aviation, Zhang relegated their sphere of studies to a “traditional sector” in the category of electric drive control. In recent years, this technology has found increasing application in electrification of motor vehicles, ships, and bullet trains.

Thanks to the research team originally based in the UK, a lion’s share of the team effort has been committed to aviation electrification. The team had been previously involved in some EU projects, such as Clean Sky, one of Europe's largest research initiatives aiming to develop technologies for cleaner and quieter next-generation aircraft. The project chiefly involved major companies, like the Airbus, with the University of Nottingham being the only university participant.

This engagement enabled the team’s subsequent seamless connection with domestic airliners in China, consolidating the team’s dominant and leading position in the field.

Still, Zhang said that it took a bit of courage for COMAC to give the project to UNNC, rather than traditional home-grown Chinese aviation universities.

Zhang’s team has entered into two major projects with COMAC. The first was the DC Starter Generator for C929. Compared with the most advanced system adopted on Boeing 787 Dreamliner, the system developed by Zhang’s team is smaller, lighter, and surpasses the Boeing counterpart in terms of efficiency and power density.

Another major distinction is that, unlike the AC adopted by Boeing, the system Zhang’s team developed works on DC. With the system formally accepted by COMAC in 2019, Zhang’s team is now cooperating with COMAC on another project.

In addition to this cooperation, Zhang’s team is also committing a sizable portion of their effort to electrification project in the field of general aviation, i.e. smaller aircraft with four to five seats.

Zhang said that while in the US general aviation is a US$200 billion sector, our share in it is still a trifle,accounting for about 4% of the US capacity, with only 30% home-grown technology adopted.

“We have excellent electric drive technology for aviation, but since this is a burgeoning market,we still need time to grow up,” Zhang said, adding that while the technology’s use in motor vehicles could achieve leapfrog development, its application in aviation will take much longer, as a result of complications in airworthiness certification.

Zhang’s extensive experience in universities and research institutes in the UK and China affords him plenty of material to make some comparisons.

First of all, all researches need to be carried out by those with genuine interestsIdeally their enthusiasm in scientific inquiry should manifest early in childhood, and last longer in the journey. “In the UK, for example, relatively few of them were studying electric control, yet the very few turned out to be very dedicated, and this enabled them to delve deeper into the field,” Zhang observed.

Zhang also said that, from a management perspective, the western approach is more streamlined and hands-off than their counterparts in China.

There is less emphasis in the West on publishing scientific papers. He cited the example of a fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering in the UK, whose published papers as first author numbered less than 10.

“That would be inconceivable at home,” he said. “The number is so modest that it would exclude you from any well-funded projects.”

Thus, he said, there is a frenzy in China’s academic community to churn out learned papers, at the behest of publish or perish, and at the expense of real research.

Zhang lauded a recent national drive to end this single-minded obsession with the publication of scientific papers, though he cautioned that real progress might be agonizingly slow, or elusive.

He went on to note that scientific and research resources in China are heavily concentrated and more accessible to those with titles and connections, posing a great disadvantage to young researchers.

“Especially if you have been inducted as promising talent, you would be under tremendous pressure to deliver in terms of published papers and projects, and consequently be consumed in excessive but often meaningless KPI-friendly work,” he said. “Research is slow and very time-consuming, and might fail.”

Zhang cited the example of a state institution that, in a dramatic gesture, hired about 100 researchers with PhD degrees.

“Unfortunately, in the absence of a really strong team leader, this institute in the space of four or five years morphed into an entity more adept at subcontracting its research projects to other universities,” Zhang said.

Still, China holds great promise, he said. For example, it is eminently capable of mobilizing national resources for momentous projects, such as the C919 aircraft.