Inspiring the Next Generation of Innovative Female Engineers

Dr Zhe Liu works as the Sustainability Lead at the Lightweight Manufacturing Centre (LMC), part of the National Manufacturing Institute Scotland (NMIS), operated by the University of Strathclyde.

This year Zhe was named as one of 100 finalists as part of Women’s Engineering Society’s (WES) Top 50 Women in Engineering Awards (WE50) for International Women in Engineering Day (INWED). Here she provides a glimpse into her cutting-edge research, including a project that could save millions of tonnes of waste in the renewable energy sector. Zhe also shares her view of why we must encourage women and young people to develop confidence in their abilities to thrive within the industry.

The theme for this year’s WE50 award is inventors and innovators and Zhe embodies these qualities in her work of moving forward the vision for sustainable composite manufacturing.

Zhe said: “As a female working in an industry that has been historically male dominated, there’s 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 ten 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 specialise 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 here, I completed a PhD in design and manufacture of high-performance recycled carbon fibre 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 $1,000,000 annual strategic research collaboration between the University of Nottingham and Boeing in carbon fibre recycling to develop recycling solutions for Boeing aircraft end-of-life and in-process scrap. It was an incredibly exciting project to be involved in and has been a highlight of my career so far.

“Now at the LMC 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 modelling related to specific industrial requirements. The aim of the ongoing project is to establish a closed-loop system for carbon fibre 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 £2 million 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 fibres from composites waste streams. The pioneering three-year Products from Recycled Glass fibre at Economic and Sustainable Scale (PRoGrESS) 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 tonnes 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. However, knowledge is limited on the difference they can make, and we must continue to educate businesses and individuals on the potential impact and accessibility of such materials for companies of all sizes.

“It’s a real honour to be recognised 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 eleven 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.”