At TUMCREATE, as we prepare to conclude our research in Phase Two – Towards the Ultimate Public Transport System, we would like to highlight our researchers who continue to make significant contributions to the programme. Through our interview series, People behind the Science, we talk to our researchers to discover more about them and their stories.
For this interview, we have Zhang Kai, a research fellow from the team Electrification Suite and Test Lab (ESTL).
At the age of 19, Zhang Kai made a bold decision to move from China to Germany to attend the University of Duisburg-Essen for his undergraduate study. From there, he set out to learn more about the different parts of Germany and decided to move to Munich, where he continued his master studies at the Technical University of Munich (TUM). Before taking up the research position with TUMCREATE, he never thought that being a researcher would be a right path for him. Turns out, it is a perfect fit.
Q: Tell us about yourself and what you do…
My name is Zhang Kai and I am a researcher from ESTL. Together with my colleagues, we study the final energy sector of Singapore and come up with ways to create innovative solutions for renewable energy integration and efficient energy system. I have just submitted my dissertation that looks into the market frameworks to facilitate peer-to-peer electricity exchange in power system.
Currently, I am also a part of a research consortium of industry partners and local universities, including SIT (Singapore Institute of Technology) and NTU (Nanyang Technological University), focusing on microgrid management, which is seen by many as the future of power system. My objective is to link the microgrid management platform, that is under development, to the current and future Singapore electricity market.
Q: What made you come to Singapore, and how has it been like living here?
Back when I was studying in Germany, I had to decide on where to write my master thesis. The options were between going into the industry in Germany or coming to Singapore. I had never been to Singapore and the idea of spending the remaining of my study in Southeast Asia was very intriguing to me. So, I decided to come to Singapore and this place has been my home ever since.
I really enjoy the diversification and the international working and living environment here. Having lived in both China and Germany, Singapore is an ideal place for me as the culture here has a mix of the east and west. Food is an important factor for me too so it’s great that I never have to encounter the difficulty of finding my new favourite food in Singapore!
Q: Who or what inspired you to be in your field of research?
Instead of saying that I was inspired, I think it was the curiosity of the unknown that first got me into research. Then, it was all the people that I had met along the way, especially people with common interests as me, who continued to lead and motivate me to become the researcher I am today. The work I do is also a huge motivation for me to be in this field of research. I want to be a part of something that is able to make a difference in the world and by changing the way we produce and consume energy can help to address global issues like climate change.
Q: What are some of the challenges for you in your field of research?
I believe getting to know the full picture and understanding the connections between different sub-areas of the research is the biggest challenge in my field. Energy, as a whole, covers a big spectrum of research fields such as engineering, economics and policies. Yet, I’ve noticed that quite a number of researchers tend to focus and specialize in one of the areas and only attempt to solve specific problems based on their specialties. With these isolations in research, research results may look optimistic in theory but have limitations in real-world applications, when the connections to other areas are not factored in.
Q: Tell us about your work and journey in TUMCREATE…
I joined TUMCREATE as a master student in 2015. This was when I first gained knowledge about the energy sector. It was also the first time for me to work in a fully research-based environment. After finishing my master thesis, I decided to pursue my PhD with TUMCREATE in the relevant field of energy economics. I first focused on theoretical approaches for the cost-efficient management of energy system and developed methods accordingly at the beginning of my PhD. After finishing the main work for my program, I decided to steer towards application-oriented research, bringing these developed methods and tools to the next stage through pilot projects, with the hope that they can make an impact and contribute to the transformation of the energy sector in Singapore. This is what my team and I are trying to achieve currently.
On a more personal note, having spent my early twenties as a fellow student in Germany, I have grown a special attachment to the country. So, although I have lived in Singapore for quite some time, I am still very keen on German culture and being in TUMCREATE allows me to keep that side of me. Here, you can always find someone to practice German with so that you do not lose the language along the way! I don’t think it’s easy to find an environment like this elsewhere in Asia.
Q: What are some of your plans in the future?
For the more foreseeable future, I think I would like to continue my stay in Singapore. I think this is where I can really gain an understanding of the overall picture in my field of research and have opportunities to test out some innovative ideas for smart energy system in an urban environment. I can’t wait to see the tools, that my team and I have been developing, help shape the future of energy supply in Singapore. As for long-term plan, I would like to keep it open. If not, where is the fun?
(We know it’s not easy being a researcher so we hope the next question can help!)
Q: What’s the best piece of advice you have ever received?
One of the best advices I have received is to always keep an open mind and listen to opposite opinions. Many new research ideas are only gained through this way as different opinions allow you to look at your problems from different angles and open new doors for you. In doing so, things can sometimes surprise you in unexpected ways, both in your professional and personal life. I think it is also especially important to do so considering the current affairs, which showed that we should always be open-minded in order to seek collaboration and bring people together.
We would like to thank Zhang Kai for this interview and letting us a chance to get to know more about him and the incredible work he is doing.