UCF scientist a semifinalist in “Nobel Prize” type contest

University of Central Florida Associate Professor Lei Zhai’s work with “frozen smoke” has earned him a semifinalist spot in an international competition likened to the Nobel Prize.

“I am quite surprised by all the attention,” said Zhai, who specializes in nanotechnology. “I don’t know where this competition will go, but I hope we can get some industry recognition of our work and move forward and put it into some real-world applications.”

Zhai’s work is focused on a spongy material evocatively known as “frozen smoke” and technically known as an aerogel. Zhai and his team infuse carbon nanotubes intothe world’s lightest carbon material. The results could lead to advances inrobotic surgery, detection of pollutants and even increased battery capacity.

Since the nanotubes have a greater surface area, the aerogel they make can store even larger quantities of power. This could have big ramifications on the storage capacity of lithium batteries and large capacitors which, in turn, could wind up improving the storage mediums for renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power.

Earlier this year Zhai received international attention for his work and it caught the attention of the Katerva Awards.

The awards are described as an open-source “Nobel Prize.” Organizers, which include experts in a variety of fields, scour the world looking for cutting-edge research that is creative and offers potential solutions to some of the world’s greatest problems. Winners will be announced at New York’s Lincoln Center in December.

“Right now we are working to reduce the costs of fabrication and introducing other nanoparticles that will increase functionality, like promoting more energy storage,” Zhai said of the ongoing research. “I think we’re very close to making some nanotechnology very practical for applications.”

UCF researchers Saiful Khondaker, Sudipta Seal and Quanfang Chen and postdoctoral associate Jianhua Zou worked with Zhai on the project.

Should Zhai be the grand-prize winner, he will be introduced to a circle of partner organizations and business gurus. Those representatives will offer assistance and their specific expertise to the winner. It is thegoal of this circle to accelerate the winning initiative toward impact at aglobal level as quickly as possible.

Among the partners: Deloitte, a globalcompany which focuses on financing advice and consulting to businesses, andMarshall Goldsmith, a business consultant and author that Forbes magazine recognized as one of the 15 most influential business thinkers in 2009.

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