Editor's note: Associate Professor Xiaoling Liu joined the University of Nottingham Ningbo China (UNNC) in 2015, as the Deputy Head of the Composites Group. She also holds the Associate Director role in Advanced Composite Centre. Under her leadership, UNNC’s Composites Group has become an innovative teaching and research platform, and she has built a research team with young and dedicated researchers. Her team has established long-term strategic partnerships with both domestic and international companies as well as research institutions.
Can you explain your research?
It is now a major trend in the industry to develop light-weighted composite materials. The uniqueness of our research is that we concentrate on developing sustainable light-weighted composites that are made from green and recyclable materials.
What challenges is your research hoping to tackle?
Sustainability is of paramount importance to today’s world. The development of our society should reduce not only the reliance on non-renewable resources, but also the negative impact on the environment.
Most commonly used resin materials are extracted from petroleum. One of our research projects looks at using plant resin as matrix to develop high-performance composites, in order to reduce the reliance on petroleum resins.
In our ACC TECH – UNNC Joint Laboratory in Sustainable Composites Materials, there are two rowing boats, which are manufactured with rosin resins. Those two rowing boats are light-weighted and their performance has proved just as good as traditional rowing boats.
The rowing boat made of rosin resins
The other issue we are dealing with is to try eliminating the production and consumption of non-degradable glass fibers. We're developing bioresorbable glass fibers and to explore the application in the biomedical field, medical implants for instance.
With this technology available, medical implants can stay in human body and no longer need to be taken out. Because with the raw materials composed of necessary minerals such as calcium, magnesium, and phosphorus, medical implants can be directly absorbed.
In terms of recyclable materials, we are collaborating with Arkema, a world-leading chemical company, to enhance the thermoplastic molding process. This technology will enable plastic products to be recycled in a simpler and more economical way.
We're also working on creating multi-functional materials. Our team has successfully developed a fire-retardant composite in collaboration with TFP, a leading global non-woven manufacturer in the UK. The product has succeeded in fire testing for rail applications, and it is recyclable, simple to manufacture and widely applicable.
You are leading nearly ten research projects, and what do you think makes you and your team more competitive in attracting partnerships?
I think there are three main reasons. Firstly, we have UNNC as an excellent platform, which, due to its wide recognition in the industry, has helped us attract partners from the beginning.
Secondly, we have a balanced talent structure. We have world-class experts, such as Professor Xiaosu Yi, and researchers of younger generations on the team. More importantly, there is a group of dedicated research assistants who take care of the technical support work, including the routine maintenance of equipment and training. Without them working diligently, we won’t be able to devote our time fully to the in-depth research.
The third aspect is our team’s great passion towards scientific research. Our lab was co-founded with the Aviation Industry Corporation of China (AVIC) Composite Corporation in 2016. I remember that an AVIC representative once commented very positively of our work ethics, saying that it was the reason why they chose to work with us. They believed that with the researchers’ dedication and hard work, the lab would have a promising future. I'm proud that we have lived up to that expectation.
What makes you feel most fulfilled working at UNNC?
For me, teaching is the most fulfilling task.
Since 2016, our team has been teaching modules on composite materials to the final year students of the Mechanical, Materials and Manufacturing Engineering programme.
We made certain adjustments to the module plan based on the University of Nottingham UK version, and added lab experiment sessions. By putting theories into practice, students can have hands-on experience and enhance their understanding towards composites.
We also adopted students’ suggestion and enriched our assessment methods. Instead of evaluating the learning outcome with just one final exam, we added in-class tests, lab experiments, reports and in-class presentations as supplementary assessment tools. In this way, students wouldn’t be too stressed about the final exam while their learning can be reinforced periodically.
These measures have proved to be effective. Quite a few of our undergraduate students, despite not majoring in composite, chose to further their studies in this academic field, and they were admitted into world’s top-notch universities. I am very pleased to learn that there are so many young talents in our field.
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