U. collaboration aids research in Africa
In an effort to make students more culturally and socially aware, Rutgers, Princeton University and the Integrative Graduate Education Research Traineeship are in their last year of collaboration on the Nanotechnology for Clean Energy project.
The Nanotechnology for Clean Energy is one of five IGERTs currently funded at the University, said Eric Garfunkel, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.
IGERT, a five-year, $3 million undertaking funded by the National Science Foundation, gives students and faculty the chance to collaborate with their counterparts in Africa so they can facilitate their individual research, he said.
Rutgers chose to collaborate with African universities in countries such as South Africa, Nigeria and Ethiopia, as well as Ghana, Senegal, Tanzania, Zimbabwe and Morocco, he said.
“It worked well because Africa is sort of underrepresented in this field and there’s a very strong need and draw from the African side to get involved in energy development and nanotechnology development from there,” Garfunkel said.
Nanotechnology for Clean Energy focuses on looking for alternative energy sources besides coal and gasoline, both of which involve nanotechnology, he said
“It could be new batteries, new solar cells, new fuel cells, new ways of doing lighting, like artificial lighting, so that’s where the energy comes in,” Garfunkel said. “For the most part, it excludes nuclear, wind and tidal energy.”
Nanotechnology stems from nanoscience, the science of studying the ultra-small —objects sized between a big molecule and something well below the vision threshold of the naked eye. Nanotechnology is the use of nanoscience in application, he said.
Ryan Thorpe, a graduate student in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, visited Addis Ababa, Ethiopia in December 2012 to further the applications of nanotechnology. There, he was involved in a workshop geared toward helping those scientists and engineers working on renewable energy.
“Africa right now is undergoing a pretty rapid development in terms of infrastructure and economics,” said Thorpe. “So the renewable energy researchers are very excited about the idea of trying to implement renewable energy technology in African villages or cities.”
By making minuscule nanomaterials, the chemical properties of materials known to scientists can be changed into entirely new forms, he said.
“My research is on new types of battery materials that use nanoparticles of different compounds as an electrode,” Thorpe said. “It turns out that using nanoparticles instead of larger particles makes these materials much more reactive and much easier to cycle in batteries.”
Aleksandra Biedron, a graduate student studying physical chemistry, also visited Addis Ababa in December 2012. She said she attended lectures and workshops delivered by experts on energy materials, built simple devices like solar cells and solved problem sets with her peers.
Approximately 50 graduate students from the United States and 100 graduate students from East Africa participated in the lectures and workshops with her, she said.
In Africa, Biedron said she soon noticed significant differences between what research focused on in Addis Ababa and in the United States.
“Here, we’re moving at a very quick pace and we’re thinking about devices and high technology,” Biedron said. “But over in Africa they’re trying to solve some simple issues like what the best heating device is or how they can generate light in their small villages.”
For years, American researchers have traveled to developed cities such as London and Paris to collaborate with their counterparts, while communication with the developing world has remained stagnant, Garfunkel said.
“There’s a lot to be gained just by sharing information and sharing common experiences, and from a cultural standpoint, it’s important for renewable energy researchers to have an understanding of what it is that developing nations need in terms of making this energy technology fit with cultures they’re trying to use this technology on,” Thorpe said.
The collaborations with researchers and institutions in Africa have already altered her worldview and appealed to the idea of furthering work with developing nations in the future, Biedron said.
She thinks people might be concerned about safety or the conditions on the continent, but she said her experiences have changed her perspective of Africa.
“I’ve also told people here in my lab about my good experience, so hopefully that will set off some waves and more people will consider those kinds of collaborations or going over there,” she said.
Fixing the disconnect between perceptions of Africa and reality is equally as significant as academic collaboration, Garfunkel said.
“What you read and see in the media is that Africa is a mess,” he said. “It’s about poverty, it’s about starvation, and it’s about war. And when you go there and live there and travel through there, you find that … they’re normal people like you.”
The students bring a great deal of influence to Africa, Garfunkel said.
“You bring in one new product or you educate a group of 10 or 20 teachers over there and the multiplier effects associated with those new products or education is much greater than we could have over here,” he said.
Understanding the social landscape of Africa integrated into IGERT training is valuable insight in shaping University students into global citizens, he said.
“Realizing and understanding and participating is a major thing that you learn … and find rewarding in such an experience,” Garfunkel said.
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