Polar veteran comes in from the cold

By Sun Ruisheng and Zhang Yu (China Daily)

Updated: 2019-11-13

Long stays at both the Antarctic and Arctic give researcher from Taiyuan University of Technology a unique insight, Sun Ruisheng and Zhang Yu in Taiyuan, Shanxi reports.

This is a man who knows what it's like to literally be poles apart from the rest of humanity. Few could endure over 400 consecutive days in the Antarctic wilderness with little human contact. That Dou Yinke, 46, a professor at the College of Electrical and Power Engineering of Taiyuan University of Technology in North China's Shanxi province, relishes company, is invigorated by it, is hardly surprising.

He has visited both poles, the Antarctic and Arctic, but the tales of his experience are not that of loneliness and despair but of adventure and achievement.

From 2004 to 2012, he went to the Antarctic twice and the Arctic once, to research sea ice at the poles, overseeing data pertaining to thickness, temperature and drift speed.

Dou was chosen as one of the 17 members for China's 21st Antarctic expedition in 2004. An instrument he mastered was selected by the State Oceanic Administration for detecting the thickness of sea ice at the Antarctic. He and his comrades spent a winter at the station.

Dou, then 31, was a postgraduate student at the university and also a father of a 9-month-old. "The Antarctic is a dream place for me," Dou says. "Before that, I never thought I could one day set foot on it, not to mention staying there for over a year."

Bidding farewell to his wife and baby, he and his team sailed on China's research icebreaker Snow Dragon, or Xuelong. They arrived at Zhongshan research station, the country's second research base in Antarctica, after a monthlong voyage.

"It's like pure heaven with the clear sky, white snow, beautiful starry nights and clean air," he says of his first impression of the Antarctic. The landscape may be inspirational, but he discovered that danger lurks in the ice. He fell into a crack when he ventured out to install ice measuring apparatus 6 kilometers away from the station.

"Under the ice was freezing cold seawater that was hundreds of meters deep," Dou recalls. "I was so lucky that I was finally pulled out of the crack to safety."

But loneliness, amid the vast unforgiving ice, was the common denominator. With no mobile phone or internet to communicate with the outside world, he and his colleagues reveled in old-fashioned conversation to keep boredom at bay.

"The first three months were exciting and curious, but we got bored after that and started chitchatting about anything - work, life, friends, families and hobbies," Dou says. "After four months the 17 of us knew each other inside out. We didn't need to say'hi' when we met."

His routine included going out by snowmobile to install equipment, change batteries, read data and carry out other scientific research.

Even though extreme weather and snowstorms, not to mention the bitter cold, often posed natural challenges for him, he soon got to grips with the situation.

Equipment failure in the harsh conditions was frustrating. Seven pieces of key equipment failed one by one during his stay at the Antarctic. Some were destroyed by curious seals, some malfunctioned in the low temperatures, and some became victims of severe icy gusts.

These challenges provided the perfect test to see how good the equipment could be, even in the most challenging scenarios, and much of what was installed functioned well at both poles.

Feats based on the past

His pride in his work is evident and he managed to collect data swiftly even at great distances from the poles. With an application set on his smartphone, as he shows visitors, with the swipe of a finger, he can easily see data about the ice environment in the Antarctic and Arctic, such as temperature, atmospheric pressure and oxygen concentration.

Sliding from one set of data to another on his phone, Dou points out that it is all transmitted from his equipment at the Arctic.

"The equipment, called the 'unmanned ice station' overseeing the sea ice there, was installed in August 2018 by a student of mine, and has worked for over a year, which is the longest of any previous Chinese installation," he says, adding that so far six of his students have visited the two poles nine times.

"I feel fulfilled because our research has practical applications, and my students can continue our trips and do research at the poles," he says.

Dou and his team have been provided with financial and other support from the university, which encourages teachers and students to carry out research to foster innovation.

Wu Yucheng, Party chief of the university, says: "Innovation has been one of our school's development strategies, especially because our university is an engineering school and should make contributions to the development of the local economy."

Innovation-driven success

Located at Taiyuan, the capital city of Shanxi, a major province for mineral resources, the university has combined its development with the province's progression.

Its key disciplines are developed to promote the province's energy revolution and the clean and efficient consumption of coal, Wu says. These key disciplines include mineral and materials processing engineering, as well as mechanical engineering, chemical technology and energy and electrical engineering.

He adds that the university is making great efforts to develop under the "double first-class" project-"first-class university" and "first-class disciplines" - a national program for China's higher education excellence.

Having support from their university means that many faculty members have strived to innovate. For example, Yu Shengwang, 45, a professor at the university's institute of new carbon materials, is leading his team to make diamond products from coal-bed methane, a gas produced while mining for coal.

The transformation is an efficient utilization of the gas because coal-bed methane would pollute the environment if emitted directly to the atmosphere, according to Yu.

Another example sees Chang Xiaoming, 65, a professor who had retired for three years, still managing a lab on campus.

Chang speaks proudly about his students and the lab: "They learn to obtain more practical abilities through doing small scientific experiments at the lab."

Different from other standard university labs, Chang's lab doesn't require a fixed time for students doing research there. Actually, only 20 or so students are chosen each year to study at the lab. Identical to the school's strategy, innovative spirit and capability are the goals upon which the lab focuses, rather than specific scientific achievements, he says.

Chang says that most of his students have a brighter future in the workforce after staying at the lab for about two years, and that they are favored by companies in the labor market, or by universities if they choose to continue to study.

Contact the writers through zhangyu1@chinadaily.com.cn