Professor John Chen

On 15 July 2019, staff members and friends came together to celebrate the career of Professor John Chen, and wish him all the best for his retirement years commencing 1 Aug 2019.

Current Head of Department Associate Professor Ashvin Thambyah welcomed guests and gave a brief overview of John’s career: John was with New Zealand Aluminium Smelters from 1974-1977, then began his career the university in 1979 as a tutor, then lecturer the following year. From 1981 to 1984 John was teaching at the University of Hong Kong, following which he returned to the University of Auckland. In 1991 he was made Associate Professor and in 1996 he was promoted to Professor. He was also Head of the Chemical and Materials Engineering department from 1996 to 2004. John has is a Fellow of The Royal Society of New Zealand, and the winner of several awards and recognitions, including the Extraction and Processing Division Technology Award (The Minerals, Metals & Materials Society, USA), 2017; Skellerup Award (Institution of Professional Engineers New Zealand), 1997; and very recently invited to present the Kennedy-Wunsch Lecture, 2019, Institution of Chemical Engineers in New Zealand.

John then gave a delightful lecture, which not only described his academic journey, but nicely captured within the talk, the key historical events that were relevant during that period. The audience was indeed treated to some insightful nuggets into John’s life, his fortunes (in relation to Muldoon’s actions, and him returning from Hong Kong) and his tribulations to which he acknowledged those who have been key influencers.


Several staff members then got up and gave tributes to John, and this began with a humorous speech by the Emeritus Professors George Ferguson and Neil Broom.

Emeritus Professors George Ferguson and Neil Broom


Neil and Mark Taylor then presented the department’s gift to John


This is the first metal produced by the very first full scale industrial drained cathode cell, started at Bell Bay smelter in 1987. This cell was able to operate at below 2cm anode -cathode distance, primarily because it had just been proven by John Chen’s research group that the primary reason for loss of current efficiency (metal yield) in smelting cells was not diffusion of dissolved meta back to the anode, but hydrodynamic instability of the metal interface itself – a paradigm shift for the industry. Anode cathode distance could therefore be lowered substantially if the interface stability could be maintained. This fact changed the direction of smelting cell design permanently across the globe in the decades which followed, towards much lower electrical energy usage per kilo of metal produced.

(Caption provided by Prof Mark Taylor)


A 3D printed gift – in the spirit of John’s great sense of humour. This print of the head of the alien in the famous Hollywood film franchise ‘Predator’, is a little tongue-in-cheek reference to John’s actually serious efforts in maintaining the good name and integrity of the University. Subject to being ‘duped’ into publishing with journals and attending conferences that are dubious, there is a worldwide problem of academics falling ‘prey’ to ‘predatory’ publishers. Almost single-handedly John started a campaign in the last seven years or so, to warn academics and also to safeguard the university from such predators. Hence the theme of this ‘award’.

Finally, the event ended with a reception as people wished John a happy retirement ahead.


3 thoughts on “Celebrating the career of Professor John Chen”

  1. Best wishes to JJJC! Thank you for your wonderful years of contribution to the future engineers of New Zealand

  2. All the best for your retirement John. Thank you for your wonderful contribution in moulding the next generation of engineers. I can say that you, Margaret Hyland, Barry Welch and Mark Taylor all inspired me to join the wonderful group of Rio Tinto/Comalco alumni. That was a fabulous grounding for the rest of my career. Thank you for continuing to keep us up to date with all the news from previous students. It is great to hear where the alumni have ended up. Hope you enjoy some well deserved “me” time.

  3. Enjoy your retirement John. A big thanks for your hard work over the years, including doing such a great job of keeping us all in touch since we left university.

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