Dr Nan Li
Designing a more environmentally-friendly future for vehicles
Dr Nan Li is a lecturer and researcher in our Dyson School of Design Engineering.
She is working to develop new technologies for the design and manufacture of high-performance, lightweight vehicles, which will have a more environmentally-friendly footprint.
In 2017, she was chosen by a panel of experts as one of the top women under 35 in engineering. The list, which featured in The Daily Telegraph, were chosen by a judging panel from the Women’s Engineering Society.
"Many people think of engineering and they think “heavy industry”, which equals physically intensive work. However, technological advancements have really widened the scope of what an engineer can do."
Why did you want to become an engineer?
I love seeing the technologies I develop being used in the real world. It is very satisfying.
Technology provides us with so many opportunities now, which as an engineer, you are in a fantastic position to use to make a big difference in the world. Transportation, where my interests lie, for example, is so vital to our modern lives.
Developing technologies for more energy-efficient and affordable vehicles means that we could deliver significant positive impacts to society, the environment, and the economy.
Can you tell us a bit more about your research?
I develop new technologies for the design and manufacture of high-performance lightweight vehicles.
I have collaborated with Lotus, Fiat and many more industrial partners across the automotive manufacturing supply chain to develop low-cost aluminium hot stamping technology. The technology is used to reduce the number of materials and the amount of energy required to produce car parts. Reducing the number of car parts needed makes the cars lighter and so more fuel efficient.
We think that the use of lightweight stamping technologies on the car body and chassis could lead to a 40–50% reduction in weight, resulting in 20–25% fuel-savings and a 28.6–35% reduction in CO2 emissions.
This technology could also increase the range of electric cars by up to 30%.
I have also worked on large-scale European projects such as being the executive manager for a €6 million EU Project, consisting of 16 partners from eight countries working to apply our high-strength aluminium forming technologies to the manufacturing process of low-cost vehicles.
Being named as one of the top women under 35 in engineering was a fantastic achievement. Why do you think you made the list?
Firstly, I was really flattered to have been chosen – it felt like a great reward for all my hard work.
Like most early-career academics, I have been working really hard on all the aspects of my job, which I think contributed to me being recognised by the panel. For example, I’ve contributed to ten patented technologies. I’ve published 23 papers in refereed international journals and given a range of presentations at international conferences.
Other reasons might include that I’ve also been building up strong industrial links with companies like Tata Steel in the UK and Aisin Takaoka in Japan.
What hurdles do you think society needs to overcome to get more women into engineering?
Many people think of engineering and they think “heavy industry”, which equals physically intensive work. However, technological advancements have really widened the scope of what an engineer can do.
To get more women into engineering I think a more consistent and sustained effort needs to be done to promote engineering to girls at an early stage so that they can find out how engineering has the ability to improve all our lives.
I think Imperial and other universities’ student outreach programmes are very valuable in connecting young women with academics and practitioners and introducing an insider’s perspective into engineering as a career.
However, there’s a lot more that can be done by both public and private institutions to encourage women to enter the field.