It started with a clock

By - , Build 185

New Zealand was the winner when BRANZ Senior Scientist Zhengwei Li decided to make it his home. His work has had a quantifiable impact on our built environment with significant contributions to how standards such as NZS 3604 are developed.

Q. What’s your background – where you grew up, your schooling and tertiary education?

I was born in Sichuan province, southwest of China – the home of giant pandas. When I was 9, my father’s job took the family northeast to Hebei province where I finished my schooling. I then headed to the University of Science and Technology Beijing to do an engineering degree and then a PhD in materials science and engineering.

Q. What attracted you to a career in science. Any specific event or teacher or an affinity?

When I was a kid, I was curious to know how the alarm clock at home can tell us time and strike the two small bells at the time I set. I opened it many times, and an answer was never found before it ‘died’. This might be the seed of science.

Chemistry and physics were my favourite subjects in high school, and I wanted to go further from what I had been taught in the classroom. With the support of my head teacher Mrs Lan, I was able to experiment with my ideas around chemical reaction, electricity and magnetic force in the instrument room in my spare time.

During my postgraduate study, I was fascinated by the materials micro-world, in particular how the properties of a material can be tailored. With the careful and systematic guidance of my supervisor Professor He, I learned how to design delicate experiments to explore the correlation between the composition, microstructure, processing and property of a material. This built up a good basis for my career in science.

Q. Tell Build about your career, where you have worked and what brought you to New Zealand.

During my PhD study, I spent 1 year at the University of Auckland. I quite enjoyed the work style, the library system and the natural environment, so when there was an opportunity available at the completion of my PhD, I came back.

During my days at the University of Auckland, I was lucky to work on several projects funded by the then Foundation for Research, Science and Technology and the Marsden Fund. These were focused on titanium alloys and composites, functional coatings and thin films and nanostructured materials.

Several years later, opportunities came for a change. I chose to join BRANZ, wanting to do something different while having a simple life in New Zealand.

Q. What does a typical work day at BRANZ and your fieldwork involve?

I spend most of my working days at BRANZ’s Judgeford campus, characterising samples, analysing data and writing reports. I do travel sometimes. This is to establish field exposure sites, deploy environmental monitoring instruments and meet people who support and use our research and, like me, enjoy fresh air.

Q. What are the biggest challenges in the research area you work in?

Materials for buildings must be specified based on perceived degradation risks to meet Building Code durability requirements. This is extremely challenging since material degradation is influenced by multiple factors and varies considerably across New Zealand’s diverse and unique environments.

Meanwhile, materials have a role to play in reducing the carbon footprint and improving the resilience of buildings to the likely future adverse effects of climate change scenarios.

Quality research is needed to deliver knowledge, data and tools that can help the industry make more-informed material decisions about the trade-off between durability, climate resilience and carbon emission.

Q. Your work as a corrosion scientist is very important to the construction industry, in particular because of New Zealand’s physical environment. Tell us about any positive impacts your work has had on the construction industry.

Like many others at BRANZ over the years, some of my studies have translated into work that has made a difference to New Zealand’s built environment. The improved understanding of natural hazard influences and material-environment interactions has seen improvements to relevant standards such as NZS 3604:2011 Timber-framed buildings and SNZ TS 3404:2018 Durability requirements for steel structures and components. In particular, this helps to specify and use steel components and protective measures for buildings and their embedded infrastructure that will be built to last.

Q. What’s been a career highlight and what lies ahead?

I find it difficult to point to a particular highlight in my career so far. However, over my years at BRANZ, I have been able to apply my scientific knowledge and research experience to practical works. At the same time, learnings, particularly from fieldwork, bring new opportunities for applied research on materials degradation mitigation.

Looking ahead, there is a long way to go to help the industry build the right buildings in the right place with the right material.

Q. Anything else you want to add?

Research on material degradation has developed a multi-disciplinary approach now more than ever. Connecting with scientists from diverse areas and practitioners with rich experience is key to producing the best solutions for defined materials issues in New Zealand’s buildings.

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