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Ying Li
September 6, 2022

Focus on new faculty: Ying Li harnesses supercomputers and AI to design better polymers

Written By: Adam Malecek


There’s a scene in the 2010 Marvel superhero movie Iron Man 2 that had a big impact on Ying Li.

In the movie, Tony Stark has blood poisoning from the palladium in the Arc Reactor embedded in his chest, and he races against the clock to find a benign replacement material to power the reactor. Ultimately, with the help of his AI computer system, J.A.R.V.I.S., Stark synthesizes a new element for the reactor’s core—and that not only saves his life, but also increases the power in his armored suit.

“I was really excited by the concept of leveraging supercomputing power and artificial intelligence to dramatically accelerate the design of new materials, and it inspired me to explore this approach in my research,” says Li, who was working on his PhD at Northwestern University when he saw the film.

Today, Li’s research focuses on developing and applying multiscale and multi-physics modeling methods—combined with data science techniques such as artificial intelligence and machine learning—to understand and design advanced polymers. He joined the UW-Madison Department of Mechanical Engineering as an associate professor in fall 2022.

Li’s computational models and polymer research can help solve key challenges in a variety of areas, including aerospace, environmental sustainability, additive manufacturing, targeted drug delivery and clean water access.

For example, in reverse osmosis desalination, seawater is pushed through a polymer membrane at high pressure to remove minerals and contaminants and produce clean water. But, Li says, there are still unanswered questions about the fundamental mechanisms involved in the transport process through the membrane. By using his molecular simulations combined with machine learning techniques, Li aims to answer those questions and enable the design of better polymer membranes for clean water applications.

He’s also involved in National Alliance for Water Innovation, Energy-Water Desalination Hub, a $110 million U.S. Department of Energy program established in 2019 to focus on early-stage research and development for energy-efficient and cost-competitive desalination technologies.

“Our modeling platform is playing a key role in this major effort, where we are working to understand how to improve polymer membranes for desalination and to reduce the energy use and cost involved,” Li says. “Desalination plants use an immense amount of energy, so if we can reduce the energy cost even 1%, that would translate to millions or even billions of dollars in savings.”

Li comes to UW-Madison from the University of Connecticut, where he was an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. He brings a significant research program that has garnered large grants from multiple top funding agencies, including the National Science Foundation, which awarded him its prestigious CAREER Award in 2021.

With his NSF CAREER Award project, Li is tackling the problem of plastic pollution. Specifically, he’s studying biodegradable polymers to determine if they can provide the same level of mechanical performance as traditional plastics. This work involves investigating ways to tailor the macrostructure or microstructure of biodegradable polymers to achieve the desired performance for engineering applications.

Li’s research is also helping to meet the needs of the aerospace industry, which extensively uses polymer composite materials in aircraft. With funding from the U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research, he has been developing machine learning techniques to help accelerate the design and understanding of advanced polymers for aerospace applications.

Additionally, Li’s modeling platforms have improved the understanding of nanomedicines, including nanoparticles designed to deliver drugs to specific targets in the body. He has pioneered methods to model the movement of nanomedicines as they flow through the human vascular system and interact with structures within the body. With his research, Li has shown how changes to the shape, size, and makeup of nanoparticles can improve the chances of a drug reaching its intended target, which is crucial for cancer treatment.

“I’m leveraging the modeling and simulation tools developed by my research group to design new forms of nanoparticles that are more efficient and have better drug-loading capacity for potential therapies,” Li says. “This is an exciting and ongoing research area that could enable anti-cancer platforms.”

Li received his bachelor’s degree from Zhengzhou University, China, and his master’s degree from Tsinghua University, China, both in engineering mechanics. After earning his PhD in mechanical engineering from Northwestern University in 2015, he joined the faculty at the University of Connecticut.

As he starts his new position at UW-Madison, Li is excited about many opportunities for collaboration.

“The mechanical engineering department at UW-Madison is very strong in the area of computation and data-driven engineering, which is my primary area,” he says. “Also, the department and college have many outstanding faculty working in areas such as advanced manufacturing and polymer design, and I envision my group serving as a bridge that connects different labs, forming new interdisciplinary collaborations to solve big challenges.”