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Adventures in the Wild West of wind industry

1/6/2021

Debra Levey Larson

Qi "Joyee" Zhu with wind turbine blade
Qi "Joyee" Zhu with wind turbine blade

AE alumna Qi “Joyee” Zhu never actually applied for her first job.

“During the last summer of my Ph.D. I was an intern at GE Global Research,” Zhu said. “The last thing they said to me when I left was ‘the offer is on the way.’ The letter was under my door when I arrived back in Illinois. I was very lucky to be assigned to work on an aviation composite project.”   

Zhu received her Ph.D. in 2001 in the Department of Aerospace Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. As Philippe Geubelle’s first doctoral student, she studied the residual stress and warpage of thermoset composites.

While at GE Global Research, Zhu’s team worked with GE Aviation to develop the first-of-its-kind carbon composite fan containment system for GEnx-1B and -2B engines.

“We started from scratch, to material modeling, and all the way to FAA certification,” Zhu said. “But after working on that one project for about nine years, I wanted to do something new. I am passionate about technology and wanted to work on a core product.”

Wind turbines were becoming an important new source for renewable energy at the time, and because the blades are made of 100 percent composite materials, it seemed like a good fit for Zhu.

Today, she is a chief engineer at LM Wind Power, a GE Renewable Energy business and world-leading company in wind turbine blade design and manufacturing. But making that major career change from research to business came with challenges.

“I like to be in charge and I wanted to have more ownership so I moved to the business side of things,” she said. “In aviation, you have a very long product development cycle of five to 10 years. But when I moved to wind, it was like the Wild West. It’s very fast paced. In a year, you have a new product out, which means you have to make lots of changes very quickly. And that means coming with new dynamics.”

Zhu realized she had to adapt to be happy in this new work environment.

“The first half year was quite painful,” she said. “Initially, I was very excited in this new world, but at the end of the first half year, I was frustrated. I drew a line on a graph. The horizontal axis was time and the vertical axis was fun. My curve was going down so I had to adjust. What was wrong? Can I change and interact differently? That’s when I figured out what I should do and began kicking off to the next level.”

Although she didn’t originally set out to work in renewable energy, Zhu’s glad she’s in the field today.

“I have found a lot of purpose in my work with renewable energy and climate change. I think it is important that we look out for our planet. We need to do something for our children and grandchildren to keep our water clean, the environment clean. I believe the work I do is valuable and meaningful. And I’m very glad I stayed in the composite field.”

Zhu said just a few months ago she stumbled on a paper she had written 20 years prior. “We were trying to solve a real practical problem in the blade manufacturing. At the time, it made a great impact, and I’m still doing that.”

Zhu’s Ph.D. thesis looked at defamation – what happed to the blade during the blade manufacturing process. In creating a turbine blade the size of a football field, Zhu has to understand and mitigate that deformation and shrinkage of the polymer.

“We always try to find the best solution, which is safe and minimizes cost.” she said.

It’s about balance, Zhu said. “When creating a blade, it’s not just design. It’s manufacturing, materials, everything has to be considered. You need to balance between the aero team and the loads team, and design team, because there's always a conflict of interest. A good engineer knows how to balance that and maximize the value.

“That’s why I still love to be an engineer because there are endless problems to solve. There are always new problems. And when you get engineers together, they inspire each other because technology fascinates us. I have colleagues in Europe, India, Asia. It’s the technology that links us together.”

Zhu received a GE Edison Pioneer Award in 2014. Her team in GE Global Research Center won the Dushman Award which is their highest honor for a technology team. Zhu received the GE Women in Technology Award in 2009. She was named an Outstanding Recent Alumni of UIUC in 2008.