Campus & Community / Magazine Feature

Nanotechnology conference is full of big ideas

From solar panels to electric circuitry, the next big thing may be really tiny.

Global leaders in nanotechnology — the science of the very, very small — spent two days at the University of Denver June 22–23 at the second annual Nano Renewable Energy Summit. The event drew scientists, government officials and entrepreneurs from four continents.

“We’re focusing here on the intersection of nanotechnology and renewable energy,” said Griff Kundahl (JD ’92)  executive chairman of the Colorado Nanotechnology Alliance and director of development for global programs at DU’s School of Engineering and Computer Science. “This is an exciting time and an exciting place to be. Renewable energy in Colorado is a natural topic.”

Backing his assertion that Colorado is poised to make leaps in nanotechnology and renewable energy, Kundahl introduced the conference’s first keynote speaker, Dan Arvizu, director of the Golden-based National Renewable Energy Laboratory, a facility Kundahl called “the jewel of renewable energy.”

Arvizu told conference attendees the goal is to reduce oil consumption in the United States from 14 million barrels per day to three million barrels. To do that, the country must develop nanotechnologies to improve power line efficiency (roughly 66 percent of generated electricity is lost in transmission). And the country must invest in better solar and wind generation technology, he said.

“Nanotechnologies are really exciting because they change the physics,” he said. “There is real opportunity here.”

Among those attending the conference was Joseph McCabe, vice president of business development for Ascent Solar. The company is developing high-efficiency, ultra-thin and flexible solar collectors.

Those technologies will one day be able to do everything from power up an electric car to purify water in the poorest regions of the world, he said.

But to get anywhere, warned Rahmat Shoureshi, the United States must continue to focus on education. Shoureshi, dean of DU’s School of Engineering and Computer Science, embraced the breakthroughs in nanotechnologies but told attendees that educators must excite the next generation of scientists.

Engineering education must be a “K-30” investment, he said, referring to how students must work from the time they are in kindergarten until they earn a doctoral degree at roughly 30 years old to acquire the skills necessary for real breakthroughs. Currently, not enough students are engaged in engineering studies, and the country stands to suffer a loss of innovators and entrepreneurs in the future, he said.

“We are really experiencing a quiet crisis,” Shoureshi warned.

While other countries such as China and India are churning out increasing numbers of engineers, the United States is falling behind. Baby Boomers are retiring, and only six percent of U.S. college students are studying engineering, he said.

Without a new generation of engineers, and a new generation of teachers to educate those engineers, the U.S. will be falling behind as breakthroughs in nanotechnology and renewable energy are made overseas.

“We used to say ‘sold in China.’ Then it was ‘made in China,’” he said. “If we are not careful, and I say this with all due respect, by 2020, we will say, ‘invented in China.’”

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