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China innovators

‘King of Explosives’ who extended firing range of China’s artillery wins top science award

Wang Zeshan, 82, recognised for his lifetime contribution to the development of propellants and explosives technology

PUBLISHED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 7:55pm
UPDATED : Monday, 08 January, 2018, 11:29pm

A Chinese scientist dubbed the “King of Explosives” has won the country’s most prestigious research award for his achievements in extending the firing range of Chinese artillery and breakthroughs on gunpowder charges.

Wang Zeshan, 82, was presented with his State Preeminent Science and Technology Award by Chinese President Xi Jinping at a ceremony in Beijing on Monday morning.

The technologies developed by Wang over several decades would give China’s military – the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) – a huge advantage in potential conflict areas like the Taiwan Strait or on the Tibetan Plateau, where it has had a long-running border dispute with India, military analysts said.

Song Zhongping, a former instructor with the PLA’s Second Artillery Corps, told the South China Morning Post that one of Wang’s biggest contributions was to establish an efficient artillery operation system.

“Wang is a pioneering explosives scientist who has used his knowledge of munitions, ballistics and propellants to develop world-beating technologies,” said Song, who is now is a military commentator for Hong Kong’s Phoenix Television.

“The most important thing for artillery units is to be able to fire as far as possible and as efficiently as possible, and Wang helped to improve both.”

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In his more than six decades as a researcher, Wang has been recognised for his many contributions to the field of propellants and explosives technology. Among other things he is credited with improving the firing range of Chinese artillery by 20 per cent.

He also developed the so-called double modular charge method that revolutionised gun propellant technology and greatly improved explosives storage, Song said.

Wang’s research findings had been applied to many artillery weapons, including the country’s long-range Guardian, or WS series multiple launch rocket system (MLRS), he said.

The MLRS is equipped with GPS and integrated navigation system, which gives it a range of between 200 and 300km. The Taiwan Strait is 160km wide at its narrowest point.

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The range and accuracy of the MLRS is comparable with the US Army’s Tactical Missile System, which has a maximum range of 300km.

Wang was also the first to develop technology for reusing obsolete explosives, and energetic materials with low temperature sensitivity, which the PLA uses to improve the function of ammunition in all-weather operations, such as on the freezing Tibetan Plateau.

A now part-time professor at Nanjing University of Science and Technology and member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering, Wang was born on October 10, 1935 in the northeastern Chinese city of Jilin.

Winning the top science prize is not the first time he has been honoured for his achievements. In 1993, he collected a National Scientific and Technological Progress Award, and in both 1996 and 2016 won a National Technology Invention Award.

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Wang was a joint recipient of this year’s prestigious science award, and was joined on stage on Monday by Hou Yunde, a virologist and member of the Chinese Academy of Engineering.

Now 88, Hou spent most of his career as a researcher at the National Institute of Viral Disease Control and Prevention under the Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CCDC).

He not only lay the foundations for studies into molecular viruses, but in 1982 also pioneered China’s first genetically engineered drug – interferon Alpha-1b. Hou and his team developed eight types of the drug and in doing so massively reduced its cost. Tens of millions of people benefited as a result, Science Daily reported.

“Alpha-1b interferon was a breakthrough in genetically engineered drugs. Hou is one of the most important figures in China’s biotechnology,” Gao Fu, director of the CCDC, was quoted as saying.

In the aftermath of the SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) outbreak in 2003, which killed 299 people in Hong Kong and 349 in China’s mainland, Hou and his team helped to build a new system for communicable disease prevention, which in 2009 was used to successfully handle outbreaks of H1N1 swine flu. The system was later praised by the World Health Organisation.

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He also later played a major role in developing China’s H1N1 vaccination strategy and in the creation of a disease prevention and control network, which successfully handled outbreaks of hand, food and mouth disease, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and H7N9 bird flu.

Previous winners of China’s top science prize include Nobel laureate for medicine Tu Youyou.

Also at Monday’s award ceremony, Tang Benzhong, a chemistry professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, was honoured with a State Natural Science Award (First Class), the highest prize in its field.

Tang, whose work has aided the development of everything from systems for tracking cancer cells to foldable smartphone screens, is the second Hong Kong-based scientist to win the award.

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“Deeper cooperation on scientific research between the mainland and Hong Kong is mutually beneficial,” the scientist said.

Tang also leads the Hong Kong branch of the Chinese National Engineering Research Centre for Tissue Restoration and Reconstruction, which has developed more than 100 new materials and been granted 67 patents.

Additional reporting by Zhuang Pinghui and Liu Yujing