An Orlando, Fla., scientist specializing in nanotechnology first earned a national award, then became a contender for a new kind of “Nobel Prize” for sustainability.

University of Central Florida associate professor Lei Zhai’s work with “frozen smoke” earned a semifinalist spot in an international competition, the Katerva Awards. Although Zhai did not win the prize, he hopes that he and his team can “get some industry recognition of our work and move forward and put it into some real-world applications.”

Zhai’s work focuses on a spongy material evocatively known as frozen smoke and technically known as an aerogel. Zhai and his team infuse carbon nanotubes into the world’s lightest carbon material. The results could lead to advances in robotic surgery, detection of pollutants and even increased battery capacity.

Because the nanotubes have a greater surface area, the aerogel can store even larger quantities of power. This could have 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.

In 2011, Zhai received international attention for his work and it caught the attention of the Katerva Awards, sometimes described as an open-source “Nobel Prize.” Organizers, which include experts in range of fields, look for cutting-edge research that is creative and offers potential solutions to some of the world’s greatest problems.

“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 says of the ongoing research. “I think we’re very close to making some nanotechnology very practical for applications.”

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