Lei Zhai, an associate professor with joint appointments in UCF’s NanoScience Technology Center and Chemistry, has been nominated for a Katerva Award .

The award is 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.

Zhai’s Frozen Smoke project, which received international media coverage, fits the bill. His work infuses 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.

UCF researchers Saiful Khondaker, Sudipta Seal and Quanfang Chen and postdoctoral associate Jianhua Zou worked with Zhai on the project. Winners will be announced at New York’s Lincoln Center in December. Nominees go through a rigorous process involving more than 300 recognized experts and dozens of review phases to find and “shine a spotlight on the best sustainability efforts on the planet.”

The grand prize winner is introduced to a circle of partner organizations and business gurus. Those representatives will offer assistance and their specific expertise to the winner. It is the goal of this circle to accelerate the winning initiative toward impact at a global level as quickly as possible. Among the partners: Deloitte, a global company which focuses on financing advice and consulting to businesses and Marshall Goldsmith a business consultant and author which Forbes magazine recognized as one of the 15 most influential business thinkers in 2009.

But this isn’t the attention Zhai received. This week he was selected for a Scialog Award, which includes a $100,000 prize to support his proposed solar energy conversion research. Zhai is building nano-scale columns of conductive polymers to improve the efficiency of polymer solar cells. Each Scialog proposal was subject to peer review and only those proposals seen as highly innovative and with the potential to transform the field of solar energy conversion were selected for awards.

This award is specifically aimed at having Zhai serve as a national expert to share his knowledge to help advance the field.

The Research Corporation for Science Advancement provides the Scialog awards. Established in 1912, the organization is the fulfillment of the unique philanthropic concept of Frederick Gardner Cottrell, scientist inventor and philanthropist, who established Research Corporation with the assistance of Charles Doolittle Walcott, the then Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution.

According to the organization’s website award recipients are asked to “to address a few narrowly focused issues on a particular research initiative and to communicate with one another in an annual conference to share insights and build collaborations.”

The organization says its goal is to accelerate the work of 21st-century transformational science through funding research, intensive dialog and community building.

Zhai joined UCF in 2005 after he completed his post-doctoral work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has a master’s degree in Chemistry from East Tennessee State University and a Ph.D. in Chemistry from Carnegie Mellon University. Zhai has written dozens of peer-reviewed articles, has obtained six patents and is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences. He is the recipient of National Science Foundation CAREER Award.