Spotlight on... Professor Kai H. Luo

This week we meet Professor Kai H. Luo, Chair of Energy Systems in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Fellow of the Royal Academy of Engineering. Here, Kai chats to us about the growth of the UK Consortium on Mesoscale Engineering Sciences, which he established in 2013.

What is your role and what does it involve?

I hold the Chair of Energy Systems in the Department of Mechanical Engineering. I do research in the energy field aiming for ever higher energy efficiency and lower impact on the environment and climate. Right now, we are experiencing the most dramatic transformation in energy systems since the Industrial Revolution. My particular research interest is in energy system modelling, design and optimisation, from fuel molecules, via mesoscale devices, all the way up to whole systems.

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

I have been working for UCL since 2013, having previously been a professor in Southampton University and Queen Mary, respectively. My association with UCL has been much longer through my sons Alex and Stan, who were both born in UCH in the same ward, delivered by the same nurse, four years apart! Alex is now an undergraduate at UCL.

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

My proud achievements are always ahead of me. If I had to pick up one now, I would mention my initiative to establish the UK Consortium on Mesoscale Engineering Sciences (UKCOMES) in 2013. Our consortium addresses grand challenges at the interfaces between the micro-world and the macro-world, and between the traditional engineering and science disciplines. Funded by two successive EPSRC grants, I have led UKCOMES to grow into an emergent interdisciplinary research community consisting of 21 institutions in the UK and 10 or so international organisations, working in collaboration with numerous companies. In addition to research outputs, we have trained a new generation of researchers and produced software that is used by thousands in industry and academia worldwide.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of your to-do list?

I am working on an EPSRC funded project "Exascale Computing for System-Level Engineering", in collaboration with colleagues in Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh, Manchester and UCL. By the way, exascale computing refers to calculations at 1018 floating point operations per second or above. We are exploring the next generation of mathematical and numerical models as well as software tools that would enable the prediction, design and optimisation of whole engineering systems with built-in resilience and uncertainty quantification. We are not there yet, but future aircraft and jet engines could be seamlessly designed on exascale computers and beyond, in a matter of a few months rather than years, at significantly enhanced performance and reduced cost.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

When I was a PhD candidate in Cambridge University, I watched the film "Life Story: The Race for the Double Helix", which is unforgettable. It told a story of a truly revolutionary discovery that happened in the familiar surroundings of Cambridge and London Universities. The same tension, frustration, excitement and joy still resonate within university campuses on a daily basis. I would recommend it to every student.

Atomic Kitten’s albums are all my favourites.

My favourite novel is Gone with the Wind.

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

Why doesn’t the bride marry the best man?

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

I dream to have a dinner again with my parents. I imagine they would toast my recent election to an FREng as they whole-heartedly supported my academic career, with my mother being my first teacher in primary school. If one guest were to be invited, it would be Alan Turing. I wonder what he would say, after a few glasses, about today’s machine learning and AI.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Be bolder.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

That I can speak a bit of French, Japanese and Russian, in addition to Chinese and English.

What is your favourite place?

I hope I would not bore people by saying "London". I first came to live in London in 1991 when I started to work at Imperial College. To me, it is still the coolest place on earth for its sophistication, vibe, resilience and even ambition. On a local scale, living beside the Richmond Park offers an opportunity for physical roaming when I am not in the virtual world of computer simulation.