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Celebrating Asian–Pacific American Heritage Month: Zhiyong Xia

Yangping Guo

Zhiyong Xia of the Research and Exploratory Development Department (REDD) explains why he went into the study of polymers (compounds that are created with long chains of matter): "I wanted to do something that was not fully well understood," he says, "and to make new contributions and make something happen. I wanted to look at new angles in new areas."

Xia, who heads REDD's Thermal Analysis Laboratory, describes himself as a polymer physicist. That's somewhat unusual, he explains, because most in the field say they are polymer chemists. "Polymer chemists focus more on making polymers, where I look for physical and mechanical properties of polymers," he says.

That investigative spirit serves him well at APL. "The aspect I love the best about APL is that I am being exposed to all different kinds of problems in the real world," says Xia. "These problems can't be solved with a single polymer piece; they need to involve many other types of materials—metals, ceramics—in many different kinds of applications."

Growing up in northeastern China, Xia was always interested in science, particularly in the applied sciences of understanding things like metal, ceramics, and plastics. "I always wanted to do materials science," he says. "It's the building block of engineering and science."

After getting his master's degree, he decided to focus further on polymers. "Within materials, I was especially fascinated by polymers," he says. "It's a relatively new field (in comparison with metals), which means there is still a lot of new research to be done. They are very intriguing materials that exist everywhere, including in biological systems. You can tweak the structures of polymers, change the morphology, and come up with all kinds of great properties."

Xia came to the United States in late 1997, arriving at Texas A&M University for his doctoral work in polymeric materials. After getting his Ph.D., he headed to Tennessee to join the global research and development arm of the Eastman Chemical Company (a former Eastman Kodak chemical division) that specialized in polyester research; while there, he pioneered several technologies in improving reheat blow molding characteristics and impact properties of polyesters. As a leading inventor there, he filed 21 U.S. patent applications and was granted seven U.S. patents.

Xia next worked at the now-defunct BP Solar in Frederick, MD, working on the materials that boost the energy output and improve the durability of photovoltaic solar modules; his work led to four patent applications. In 2010, he won the BP Global Group Helios Award (a BP worldwide recognition) for his multiple innovations to improve the amount of energy that a solar module could produce. Interestingly, both companies tried to name processes Xia had created after him, but he admits that "Zhiyong Xia" is not the easiest name to use (BP settled on "Thermal Cool").

Xia and his wife and daughter live in Montgomery County, while his extended family remains in China. Comparing traditional Chinese and American engineering cultures, he says that group interactions are very different. "In my experience, in China, people are not direct about asking things, and will not disagree with you during a presentation," says Xia. "In the U.S., you're almost obligated to speak up. It's common for people to put you on the defensive about your idea, but it's to make the idea better."

Growing up, Xia was known in his family as "not obeying the traditional rules," he explains with a laugh. With a grin, he adds: "I am very direct, so in this way, this country fits me better."

Xia's current research projects illustrate his breadth of work: transparent armor and water filtration systems for Humvee vehicles, and a novel stem cell-impregnated nanofiber patch for accelerated wound healing. He also runs REDD's Thermal Analysis Laboratory, which characterizes materials to reveal their thermal and mechanical properties.

"I was hired by [the Technical Services Department (TSD) in late 2010], but I had always wanted to do research," Xia says. "When TSD was merged into what is now REDD, I was very happy with that, because now I have the opportunity to both do research and also interact directly with sponsors."

His interests, past experiences, and expertise are all called upon by the challenges that the Laboratory tackles. "At APL, collaboration is important, more than independence," says Xia. "There is only so much you can do by yourself. Teamwork is key, which is something I learned at my other companies. Make sure you value everyone on the team, because I truly believe in synergy. With the right team and right people, one plus one can equal three, or even four."