Cai develops scalable nanomanufacturing and better smart clothing
The MechSE department welcomed Lili Cai to campus this January. The new assistant professor completed her undergraduate studies in material science and engineering at University of Science and Technology in China and her graduate and post-doctoral studies in mechanical engineering at Stanford University.
Cai hopes to build upon the knowledge gained from previous research with her own research program. With several projects in mind, Cai’s primary effort involves developing rapid, scalable methods to create new materials, primarily using flame methods. Second, she aims to apply these materials in energy conversion processes using electrochemical or photo-electrochemical pathways to convert fuels to more valuable products. She then hopes to create smart wearables that can sense changes in various parameters such as temperature and adjust to accommodate these changes.
Her interest in nanomanufacturing originated from efforts with her PhD advisor to develop new materials using rapid flame synthesis methods. Using her knowledge from her undergraduate studies in materials science, this interdisciplinary work combined combustion science and nanotechnology.
During her post-doctoral studies, she and her colleagues developed a wearable material that could be used for personal thermal management. The result was a material that more efficiently transmits heat to the environment while reflecting the sun’s rays or more efficiently insulates and maintains temperature based on the material’s composition and structure. Using a composite made with a polyethylene polymer and zinc oxide nanoparticles, the material allows more than 90 percent of a person’s body heat to escape while also blocking over 90 percent of the sun’s rays. This technology improves on existing clothing with SPF ratings that are only able to block the ultraviolet portion of the sun’s rays and transmit less than 50 percent of the body’s heat.
This semester, Cai is also teaching ME 330 (Engineering Materials). In the future, she aims to enrich the content and develop new courses to prepare students for their professional careers.
“In the application side of new technologies, I think it is always kind of interdisciplinary, and requires more than one skillset. As faculty here at Illinois, I hope I can bring not only the traditional mechanical science and engineering experience, but also provide more interdisciplinary experiences of cutting-edge research.”