Associate professor Lei Zhai gained international attention two years ago when he developed “frozen smoke,” a new material made out of nanoparticles and which belongs to the family of the lightest solids in the world. It’s a spongy substance that may improve robotic surgery and energy-storage capability. For more on “frozen smoke,” click here.

Since his discovery, Zhai continues to work at UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center. The center’s faculty focuses on developing nanomaterials that could help science in a variety of ways, from making better surgical instruments to developing ways to clean up toxic ocean pollution.

Zhai, who is from WuHu, China, has been at UCF for eight years. He enjoys the challenge of research and he relishes the opportunity to teach. Reaching out to young people to encourage them to pursue science is one of his passions.

What do you most love about your job?

I like to take the challenges and make new stuff. The NanoScience Technology Center provides unique opportunities to build interdisciplinary research projects with faculty from different fields. Such research environment enables me to use our materials in various applications. Training students and watching them grow into excellent scientists is very rewarding as well.

What is the one thing you want people to know about you or your work? 

As we embrace new technologies and appreciate the pleasure, excitement and convenience in the 21st century, unprecedented challenges including excessive consumption of materials and energy, environmental degradation, and global financial crisis call for all aspects of efforts to improve the global sustainability. Improving the material performance during the operation is one of the major endeavors to surmount these challenges. Our research goal is to develop materials that are thousands times smaller than human hair, yet can self-assembly into micron scale building blocks to construct flexible and efficient electronic devices.

What inspired you to pursue your area of research?

Carbon-based nanomaterials have unique properties such as electrical conductivity, large surface area, good mechanical properties and light weight. Their applications in flexible electronics such as flexible displays, solar cells and batteries can really have positive impact on our daily life.

Do you do any volunteer work?

I am a president of American Chemical Society Orlando Section. We focus a lot on reaching out to children in K-12 because they are our future. For example, we have worked with Workforce Central Florida and developed an iNano Workshop that introduces nanotechnology to high school students. This workshop has reached more than 600 high school students. We also worked with engineering professor Nahid Mohajeri to host a chemistry olympiad competition for high school students at the NanoScience Technology Center.

What do you do for fun?

I like playing Ping-Pong and watching movies, especially science fiction.

Tell us about your family?

I have four kids, two boys and two girls. Kevin, Arianna, Kaleb and Acacia. Acacia was born this year, so we have a high schooler, a middle schooler, an elementary schooler and a baby.

What is your ideal vacation?

A trip to Yellowstone National Park.

Who was your hero as a child and who is your hero today?

Jet Li and Jesus Christ.