Civil & environmental engineering doctoral student Zhipeng Li is conducting critical research on the novel use of fly ash in concrete, funded by the University Transportation Center TriDurLE (Transportation Infrastructure Durability and Life Extension). His journey since arriving at WSU—in spite of personal challenges—is a true testament of the academic fortitude of a young scientist.

Zhipeng grew up in China and earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering in 2014 from Wuhan University of Science & Technology and a master’s degree in geotechnical engineering in 2017 from Wuhan Polytechnic University. Zhipeng came to the U.S. in 2019 to earn his doctoral degree in civil engineering from Washington State University, where he works in Xianming Shi’s lab studying geopolymers.

“I work with geopolymer composites that are modified by trace amounts of graphene oxide,” says Zhipeng. “In particular, I am researching the use of fly ash-based geopolymer composites, which are more sustainable and greener and have great potential to replace the conventional Portland cement.”

Fly ash is an industrial solid waste and environmental pollutant released by factories and thermal power plants as a by-product of power generation. The disposal of fly ash has become a serious environmental hazard, thus the utilization of the waste material for new products is an economical and environmentally friendly solution. Considerable research has been undertaken on its potential use.

The use of fly ash to fully replace cement in mortar and concrete could result in lower water demand due to the spherical shape of fly ash and could also greatly increase strength and durability due to reduced porosity. Ongoing research on the use of fly ash is exploring its durability under variable weather conditions and the addition of nanomaterials to enhance durability. Zhipeng is currently working on a project for TriDurLE titled “Design of Fly Ash Based Geopolymer Concrete-filled FRP Tube Composite for Highly Durable and Environmentally Friendly Infrastructure.”

Zhipeng is also an avid technical writer, publishing as author or co-author eight journal articles with an additional article currently under review. In addition, he is the recipient of several awards including the 2021 Outstanding Research Assistant Award from the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering; the 2020 Distinguished Reviewer Award from the Journal of Infrastructure Preservation and Resilience; the 2020 Waheed Uddin Outstanding Graduate Student Award, 2nd Place, from the National Center for Transportation Infrastructure Durability & Life-Extension; the 2020 David C. Gross Scholarship, American Coal Ash Association Educational Foundation (ACAAEF); and the 2019 and 2020 Smart & Green Infrastructure Research Scholarship.

While accomplishing so much, Zhipeng has faced challenges at WSU that are shared by many international students. “The main difficulty for me and many international students is that you miss your family,” says Zhipeng. “The cultural differences are hard. Also, I studied English in China for 10 years, but the language is different when you get here.” These problems were enhanced over the past months with travel restrictions, quarantines, and isolation due to COVID.

Zhipeng anticipates his future as an engineer, hoping to defend his dissertation and graduate in 2022 and continue his research thereafter. Watch for his defense in the coming months on fly ash-based geopolymer for concrete infrastructure: development, characterization, application, and lifecycle assessment.


Li,Z., Shi, X. Effects of Nanomaterials on Engineering Performance of a Potassium Methyl  Siliconate-Based Sealer for Cementitious Composite. ASCE Journal of Materials in Civil Engineering, 2021, DOI: 10.1061/(ASCE)MT.1943-5533.0004148.

Li, Z., Xu, G., Shi, X. Reactivity of Coal Fly Ash Used in Cementitious Binder Systems: A State-of-the-Art Overview. Fuel, 2021, 301.

Li, Z., Fei, M., Huyan, C., Shi, X. Nano-Engineered, Fly Ash-Based Geopolymer Composites: An Overview. Resources, Conservation & Recycling, 2021, 168, 105334.

※ Lei, Z., Li, Z., Zhang, X., Shi, X. Durability of CFRP-Wrapped Concrete in Cold Regions: A Laboratory Evaluation of Montmorillonite Nanoclay-Modified Siloxane Epoxy Adhesive. Construction and Building Materials, 2021, 290. (co-first author)

※ Tang, Z., Li, Z., Fan, L., Gong, J., Zhong, J., Shi, X. Effect of Surface Tension, Foaming Stabilizer, and Graphene Oxide on the Properties of Foamed Paste. Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, 2021, 21(5), 3123–3133. (co-first author)

Li, Z., Shi, X. Graphene Oxide Modified, Clinker-Free Cementitious Paste with Principally Alkali-Activated Fly Ash. Fuel, 2020, 269,.

※ Gong, J., Li, Z., Zhang, R., Li, J., Shi, X. Synergistic Effects of Nano-montmorillonite and Polyethylene Microfiber in Foamed Paste with High Volume Fly Ash Binder. Journal of Nanoscience and Nanotechnology, 2019, 19(8), 4465-4473. (co-first author)

Li, Z., Gong, J., Du, S., Wu, J., Li, J., Hoffman, D., & Shi, X. (2017). Nano-montmorillonite modified foamed paste with a high volume fly ash binder. RSC advances7(16), 9803-9812.

Gong, J., Yu, L., Li, Z., Shi, X. Mechanical Activation Improves Reactivity and Reduced Leaching of MSWI Bottom Ash in a Cement Hydration System. Transportation Research Record, 2021. Under review (Corresponding author).