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【Distinguished XMUer】Huang Benli: The Most Artistic Scientist and Most Skilled Photographer
Updated: 2020-07-15 Hits:

At the age of 15, he completed primary school in Hong Kong as the only boarding student at the school.

At the age of 20, he completed high school in only four years, receiving the only diploma he would ever obtain: an interim diploma from Meizhou Middle School in Guangdong Province. In the same year, he was admitted to Lingnan University in Guangzhou.

At the age of 25, he gave up the opportunity to study abroad; instead, he went to Northeast China, throwing himself into the "revolution. From that point onwards, he devoted himself to spectral analysis.

At the age of 61, he left Northeast China, where he had worked for 36 years, and went south to Xiamen University (XMU). He helped build the study of analytical chemistry at XMU from the ground up.

At the age of 68, he was selected as the first academician of the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) focusing on atomic spectrum analysis.

At the age of 73, he was awarded the title of National Outstanding Teacher by the Ministry of Education.

At the age of 94, he won the 2018 Fujian Science and Technology Significant Contribution Award. 

This is but a glance at the life of Huang Benli, a professor of the College of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, XMU and CAS academician. Although he is in his nineties, he is still healthy and quick-witted. When talking about his past experiences in school and scientific research, he can recall even the smallest details. For more than 90 years, his motto has been this: "Be sincere to others, be conscientious in work; dare to challenge authority, and dare to seek the truth." 

Huang was born in Hong Kong in September 1925. His parents died young so he was brought up by his grandparents. At that time, the Japanese had invaded China and society was in turmoil, leaving Huang to lead a solitary, vagrant childhood, struggling to study in Hong Kong, Guangxi and Guangdong. Recalling that difficult time in his life, Huang does not mention "pain" or "loneliness", but instead focuses on his gratitude for those who helped him.

Huang was admitted to the Physics Department of Lingnan University in Guangzhou in 1945. His grandfather had passed away in 1943, and without economic support, he could hardly pay the tuition fees. Fortunately, many of Huang's classmates were able to help him. Zhang Zhijian was one such classmate: after learning of Huang's financial difficulties, he asked his elder brother to help pay for Huang's tuition fees. Even when Huang was later able to pay his tuition fees with scholarship money and earnings he made as a laboratory administrator and teaching assistant, Zhang and his brother still insisted on supporting him.

Huang says that, in this difficult and fate-defining period of his life, it was his classmates that helped him get through. It is something he will never forget, and it proved to be the impetus for a life dedicated to helping others and giving back to society.

During his years at Lingnan University, Huang found himself under the care of many teachers who not only imparted knowledge and skills, but whose personal integrity influenced him greatly. Among them, Huang still feels immense gratitude for Prof. Feng Bingquan and Prof. Gao Zhaolan. Feng was a top electronics expert and one of the founders of radio and electronic science in New China, while Gao was one of the pioneers of optics and spectroscopy in China. It was these two professors who gave Huang lectures on electronics and optics, areas which would become very important to him.

Feng felt it was very important to train students to apply theory in practice. He once asked students to make a superheterodyne receiver, a type of radio, at the conclusion of his radio electronics course. By referring to the theoretical knowledge they had learned in class, Huang and his classmates assembled and debugged the equipment according to their circuit diagrams, finally succeeding in making the radio. This exercise greatly improved Huang’s practical ability.

In his optical course, Gao introduced practical applications of optics such as cameras and film, which was the beginning of Huang's photography hobby. Gao also taught his students atomic spectrometry principles, showed them how to debug a spectrometer and asked them to draw conclusions only after collating, analyzing, summarizing and calculating experimental data. This knowledge stayed with Huang and had a profound impact on his career in scientific research.

The innovation and rigorous scholarship of Feng and Gao set an example for Huang in education and scientific research. But the two teachers' impact on his life extended further, as their love of and loyalty to China set an example of character. At that time, Feng and Gao had both resolutely turned down high-paying jobs and abandoned superior living conditions abroad in order to return home to China and teach. They were dedicated to training talented individuals to aid in rejuvenating the nation. It can be said that the two teachers completely changed Huang's destiny.

In 1950, Huang was about to graduate and had two options: he could go abroad to study a master's degree, or he could stay and participate in the building of New China. Huang's excellent academic performance and good character had won him scholarships previously, and now there was a high chance he would be able to pursue further study at Washington State University in the United States. However, it was a decisive period for New China: having just been established, it faced a momentous task of rebuilding. Talented professionals of all kinds were in high demand to aid in the recovery and development of the national economy.

At this time, Huang received a letter from Li Xiaoqiong, a classmate who was working in Northeast China. In the letter, she strongly recommended Huang go to the northeast to support the building of the country. Feng and Gao also wrote to Huang to express their determination to stay and serve the country. "We will stay here to do our job and do it well," they wrote. Huang was deeply moved by this letter, and so made up his mind. He was two credits short of graduating because he had deferred his studies for half a year due to a serious illness. But Huang couldn't wait for his graduation, with great determination, he gave up the opportunity to study abroad and went north to engage in the "revolution" with his classmates.

Speaking of this, Huang remarks humorously, "Now, I am an academician without a bachelor's degree, a master's degree or a doctor's degree." In fact, when he decided to go north, the Science Research Institute in Northeast China was recruiting talented individuals who had completed at least three years of university study.

With great passion for revolution, he did not care about the graduation certificate. He told himself: "It's just a piece of paper."

In March 1950, Huang went to the Northeast Science Research Institute in Changchun. Since that time, his life has been closely tied to atomic spectrum analysis.

"To be honest, I did not go north only for the revolution," he says, giving a shy smile and covering his mouth like a child.

Influenced by his professor Gao, Huang loved photography when he was in college. Li had mentioned in her letter that there was a film studio in Changchun. Therefore, Huang planned to work for the country whilst also waiting for an opportunity to transfer to the Northeast Film Studio.

"When I arrived in the northeast, I realized that it was the base for the recovery of the national economy, as there were a lot of heavy industries located there," Huang says sincerely. "Thus, I didn't think it was the time to engage in movies or photography. I decided to put my personal interest aside." After considering the overall situation of national development, he decided to specialize in spectroscopy.

Spectral analysis is a method of analyzing the properties of matter from their electromagnetic interactions. "Compared with chemical analysis, the most important feature of atomic spectrometry is that it is fast and sensitive," Huang explains. As the heavy industrial base of New China, the northeast had a great responsibility of production during the period of national economic recovery. Industries such as iron and steel, smelting and geological exploration were in urgent need of atomic spectrometry technology. At that time in China, there was a gap in this technology.

At the beginning of his research, the experimental conditions for spectral analysis in the institute were very limited, and the lack of equipment made it impossible for Huang to make progress. Unexpectedly, he found a small, old spectrograph in the institute's warehouse. Using the knowledge and technology he'd learned in university, he was able to get some use out of it. The spectral analysis methods of zinc electrolysis and electric carbon brush graphite were established by making use of the out-of-date photosensitive panels.

When a Soviet-made medium-sized spectrograph arrived, Huang studied and established the quantitative analysis methods of ductile iron and brass, and extended the spectral analysis methods to various industries in order to help them set up spectral laboratories and solve common problems such as "express analysis". In 1952, he produced a trial machine of spark excitation source for Fushun Steel Plant, which might be the first spark light source made in China for the purpose of spectral analysis.

Huang jokingly calls atomic spectrometry analysis a kind of "service industry". However, it is widely used. Although commonly used for metal smelting, it can be applied in many other disciplines, such as geological exploration, environmental monitoring, inspection and quarantine.

In 1955, Huang turned to the analysis of ore and minerals. He put forward a new method of semi-quantitative analysis that was of great academic significance and had many potential applications. In 1957, he created a double arc light source for the purpose of spectral analysis, through which trace volatile elements, including halogen, can be detected in powder samples. This was praised by foreign experts as "the most perfect double arc light source". In the 1960s, Huang began studying ultra-pure material analysis, and then later environmental samples. In 1975, he turned to the study of spectral analysis using inductively coupled plasma. This new method increased the sensitivity of the determination of hydride elements by a factor of twenty.

"I will do whatever the country needs me to do," Huang thought. And so, he threw himself into atomic spectrum analysis. The deeper he dug into this area of study, the more he understood the significance of atomic spectrum analysis to the construction of the nation.

Photography was not the only field deserving of exploration. In Huang's mind, spectral analysis is a field that needs explorers as well.

With the rapid development of the national economy, there was a huge talent gap in the field of spectral analysis. Huang not only devoted himself to scientific research, but also took the responsibility of seeking out and encouraging talented individuals in the area of spectral analysis.

In 1954, Wu Qinyi, a graduate of the Department of Physics, XMU and the deputy leader of the spectrum research group in which Huang had also participated, contacted him. Wu proposed they offer courses on spectral analysis: he would oversee teaching theory, while Huang would be in charge of guiding experiments.

At the time, Huang and his colleagues had only been engaged in spectral analysis for a few years, so they felt to say they were "offering courses" would result in too great an expectation. After all, they simply hoped to popularize the field and share their experience in spectral analysis. In the end, they decided to call the meetings "study sessions", which greatly increased the number of participants.

That year, a total of 72 people from 54 departments signed up for the study session, many of whom were associate professors, advanced technicians and department heads. Huang still remembers the names of some of the students: Gao Xiaoxia from Peking University, Zha Quanxing from Wuhan University and Cheng Fu from Lanzhou University. All the participants spoke highly of Huang's class, for it enabled them to master experimental technology and gain a deeper understanding of spectral analysis.

This three-month study session, composed of talented individuals of varying skill levels, is considered to be the "Club for Talented Pioneers" in the field of spectral analysis in China because it helped to train many of the field's important Chinese figures in scientific research, teaching and application. Many of the session's participants later became well-known professors and experts in spectral analysis. For example, Gao was elected as a member of CAS (academician), and Zha, the academician of CAS.

Attending the study session was a person who would become particularly important to Huang. That person was Zhang Peihuan, a studious and skilled student from Changchun Institute of Optics, Fine Mechanics and Physics. The pair would later marry. Huang says that while this study session was the beginning of his teaching career, it was also, quite unexpectedly, the beginning of his happy marriage.

People who are familiar with Huang say that he is like an energetic young man, rather than an old man in his nineties. Huang humorously exposes his "secret" to keeping young: "My wife feeds me well." The couple take care of each other in life and learn from each other in academic study. In this way they have supported each other for more than half a century.

As the wave of reform and opening up surged during the 1980s, Huang moved south to Xiamen in response to the call from CAS to support the construction of the special economic zone. "I came to Xiamen University at the invitation of Prof. Wu Cunya and Academician Tian Zhaowu," Huang says.

At that time, Wu, the dean of the College of Technology and Science, XMU, was one of Huang’s old friends, introduced him to Tian Shaowu, the President of XMU. Wu had heard that Huang's wife would be transferred to Xiamen Fuda Photographic Materials Co. Ltd. to support the construction of the special economic zone, so he recommended Huang teach at XMU.

"Tian and I met at a meeting of the China Chemical Society," Huang recalls. Tian was not particularly familiar with Huang at the time, but he was well aware of the great achievements Huang had made in spectral analysis. XMU was in urgent need of talented individuals in this area. So, thanks to Tian's efforts, Huang came to work at XMU in June 1986 at the age of 61.

After Huang arrived at XMU, the university was given approval by the Ministry of Education to offer a doctoral program in analytical chemistry. However, there were hurdles which limited research of spectral analysis: inadequate equipment, personnel and funds. Once again, Huang began to build from scratch.

In dealing with the shortage of experimental equipment, Huang asked an instrument manufacturer he knew well if he could take a malfunctional ICP atomic fluorescence instrument, and then repaired it for use in graduate student experiments. At the same time, there were some foreign companies who donated many experimental instruments including large and medium-sized spectrometers worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. XMU set up a joint laboratory with these companies to carry out scientific research. Gradually, the instrument shortage problem was solved.

Faced with a shortage of professional personnel, Huang recruited three doctorate students from abroad, Dr. Wang Xiaoru, Dr. Yang Pengyuan and Dr. Yuan Dongxing, to join XMU’s doctoral program in analytical chemistry. These postdoctoral researchers were the pioneers of atomic spectrum research in China. Their work was a sensation at the time.

The research team, led by Huang, overcame many difficulties to carry out a number of scientific research projects. They developed a flow injection-electrochemical hydride generation technique for atomic absorption spectrometry, which drew a lot of attention and resulted in follow-up research both at home and abroad. In addition, a system of ionic fluorescence spectrometry excited by hollow cathode lamps pulsed at high currents was developed by the team, which greatly improved the detection limit of many elements, including some rare earth elements. This technology won the National Patent in 1997 and the First Prize for Scientific and Technological Progress in Fujian Province in 2000.

The atomic spectroscopy laboratory at XMU that was built from scratch by Huang is one of China's first-class laboratories. Along with other laboratories in the Department of Analytical Chemistry, XMU, the atomic spectroscopy laboratory was developed into the Key Laboratory of Analytical Sciences, Ministry of Education and played an important role in the development of modern analytical science at XMU.

In 1993, Huang was elected as an academician of CAS for his outstanding contribution in the field of spectral analysis.

Huang once said that teachers should not mislead their students. Therefore, he always takes his class seriously by reviewing literature, taking notes, copying charts, designing projections and decorating powerpoints. He is strict with courseware: it should be concise in content and illustrated with charts as often as possible, it should be carefully curated and visually pleasing so as to attract students' attention and it should cite references properly to ensure intellectual property rights are upheld. At that time, there were no advanced tools to make courseware, so Huang created them himself.

Huang often teaches students that "the most advanced instruments are always developed in the laboratory." He means that if one wants to do groundbreaking work, one must first start with the instruments and learn to adjust the experimental equipment according to the experimental requirements. He also asks students to write papers based on experimental results, telling them: "No matter what you see or hear, even if I said it, you should try to verify it."

In 1998, Huang was awarded the title of National Outstanding Teacher by the Ministry of Education. Over the past few decades, he has trained many talented students in the field of spectral analysis, and his words and deeds as a teacher are the best evidence of what he has learned from his mentor.

Although he is in his nineties, Huang keeps on working, reading the literature and sending valuable information to students. He often discusses academic issues with other teachers and is invited to attend academic conferences to give talks or lectures.

Huang has never given up his lifelong hobby – photography. His collection of photos entitled I Came, I Saw, I Clicked contains the wonderful moments captured by his camera during his travels around the world over the past few decades. Looking at these photos, one can see the dedication and skill Huang has applied in all aspects of his life.