Inspiring the next generation of innovative female engineers

Dr. Zhe Liu, sustainability lead at the Lightweight Manufacturing Center NMIS

As a female working in an industry that has historically been male dominated, there have been many occasions when I have been the only female in a full project team, but it’s important that us women are confident in our abilities and don’t shy away from challenges.

I’ve spent 10 years researching and working within sustainable composites manufacturing, and as we see increasing demands and ambitions for net-zero, it continues to be a really exciting field to specialize in. That’s why I’m so passionate about encouraging more young people into this area.

I studied chemical engineering at the University of Nottingham before completing a master of science in advanced materials. From there I completed a PhD in design and manufacture of high-performance recycled carbon fiber products, where – working on composites recycling as a post-doctorate research fellow – my interest in sustainability and passion for supporting the circular economy was cemented.

During this time, I was involved in a $ 1m annual strategic research collaboration between the University of Nottingham and Boeing in carbon fiber recycling to develop end-of-life and in-process scrap recycling solutions for Boeing aircraft. It was an incredibly exciting project to be involved in and has been a highlight of my career so far.

Now at the Lightweight Manufacturing Center (LMC) at the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS) as the sustainability lead, I am responsible for driving forward projects within sustainable composites manufacturing, including a research project in which we have been monitoring the full impact of the recycling process using life cycle analysis and cost modeling related to specific industrial requirements. The aim of the ongoing project is to establish a closed-loop system for carbon fiber, to see material recycled and reused rather than discarded. It is funded through the NMIS Group, being part of the UK’s High Value Manufacturing Catapult.

More recently, I’ve been heading up the LMC’s role in a high profile £ 2m Innovate UK-funded project in collaboration with major industry partners such as Aker Offshore Wind, where we’re aiming to upscale and validate a novel process for recycling the glass fibers from composites waste streams. The pioneering three-year project seeks to deliver a circular model for wind turbine blades, by developing Britain’s first wind turbine blade recycling pilot plant, creating green jobs and saving millions of tons of waste in the process.

I feel that I’m currently at a high point in my career and am in a position where I can contribute to tangible change, not just in the engineering industry but in the world. This is such an exciting field to be in and I would encourage anyone to get involved.

Composite materials can make a real impact on the national net-zero targets and everyone should be able to use recycled materials easily, whether that’s at home or in a factory. People don’t know the difference they can make however, and we need to continue to educate businesses and individuals on the potential impact and accessibility of such materials for companies of all sizes.

It’s a real honor to be recognized as one of the 100 finalists for WE50 among so many inspiring engineers, and I hope that other women might be encouraged to put themselves forward for new opportunities outside of their comfort zone. It can often be the case that females within the engineering industry do not speak up about their abilities and the incredible roles they are playing within the sector. This list is a great way to champion the fantastic achievements of females at all stages of their careers. We should all track our progress and regularly celebrate and share milestones in projects, as this helps build confidence in our contribution to the industry.

I am passionate about encouraging more women to follow their dreams and thrive within an engineering career. As part of this, I’m a mentor for my peers and new graduates, sharing ideas and guidance to overcome barriers. Most recently, I mentored the Knowledge Transfer Network and InnovateUK Women in Innovation Award Winners.

At the LMC, four out of the team of 11 are women, while in wider NMIS, women make up nearly 30% of the workforce. Within the manufacturing industry this isn’t always the case, and it’s great to work somewhere that celebrates and embraces equality, diversity and inclusion.

Zhe was named as one of 100 finalists in the Women’s Engineering Society’s Top 50 Women in Engineering Awards for International Women in Engineering Day (INWED), taking place today (June 23). The theme for this year’s event is Inventors and Innovators.

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.

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