Academic profile: Associate Professor Zhongxiao Peng

Associate Professor Zhongxiao Peng

Describe the type of research you are currently engaged in

My primary research is in tribology, which is the study of friction, lubrication and wear on interacting surfaces. I am currently working on a number of projects on machine condition monitoring and fault diagnosis of gearboxes, internal combustion engines and bearings. I am also conducting research in the field of bio-tribology of human and artificial joints.

What would you say motivates you as a researcher?

Like most researchers, I have a great deal of curiosity. I think seeing curiosity in my students, seeing new ideas become a reality and interacting with the best minds in mechanical engineering is incredibly motivating. Also successes – every new accomplishment motivates you to take the next step.

I also really enjoy the project management side of my role. I find I am often so busy working with my students that I don’t have the time to do a great deal of my own research. Instead, a lot of my time and energy is spent in supervising and providing guidance to my students, and I really enjoy this. I guess you could say I am motivated by their curiosity and development.

What are you most excited or passionate about?

Probably my most exciting project at the moment is our work on human joints. There are just so many variables, many more than in regular mechanical engineering. When you’re working with machines, generally the materials have been manufactured, and you have controlled conditions or interactions. In human bodies, there is a range of different, uncontrollable variables which affect wear and tear, including genes, a person’s age, their diet and available nutrients, how much they exercise, etc. There are so many uncertainties, which is both challenging and exciting. We’re working with very complex problems, so it’s very interesting.

I’m passionate about seeing my students grow and develop from inexperienced PhD candidates to successful, independent researchers. Two of my students are now academics in China and one is running his own engineering company in Queensland, Australia – it’s fantastic to see their development and career progression, and know that you helped them find their way.

How did you come to be involved in researching tribology?

It was really an accident, as I fell into the field when I first started my PhD. I came across a one page project description, and then read two academic papers. I thought, “This is really interesting, there’s something in this”. It really captured my attention, and my research grew from there.

What has been your proudest moment?

I am proud of my students’ achievements. I was supervising a recent PhD graduate who was working on a method of particle separation and nano-characterisations that had never been done before. She was using an atomic force microscope to study the nano-mechanical properties and surface textures of human cartilage particles. She eventually overcame a number of technical problems associated with the particle separation, preparation and nano-indentation in a fluid mode, which resulted in her publishing five journal articles throughout her PhD. One of the journal reviewers stated that “The authors have set themselves a very difficult task in removing wear material generated from natural cartilage from synovial fluid. It is also clear how this technique would be of value when investigating the progress of OA (osteoarthritis). The images indicate that their aim was successfully achieved.”  She went on to receive a Postdoctoral Writing Fellowship Grant from UNSW. That was a very proud moment for me. She’s become an excellent and independent researcher and has a great career ahead of her.

What were you doing before you came to UNSW?

I was Associate Professor and head of Mechanical Engineering at James Cook University. I stayed with JCU for 13 years, before joining UNSW in August 2011.

Describe one of the projects you are currently working on

We are now looking into new materials for artificial joint replacements – materials that will work better and last longer. With one of my research associates, I am just about to start a new project that is related to our previous work with professors from UNSW’s School of Materials Science and Engineering and the University of Singapore. We are hoping to begin our application for funding within the next year. In collaboration with Emeritus Professor Bob Randall, we are also working on projects in the field of fault diagnosis and prognosis using wear debris and vibration analysis techniques, which a postdoctoral fellow and a couple of PhD students are involved in.

Visit Zhongxiao Peng's Research Gateway profile for more information about her work.

Associate Professor Zhongxiao Peng