Honored for his ultra-strong, optically transparent “plastic steel,” University alum Paul Podsiadlo won a $15,000 prize at the Collegiate Inventor’s Competition in Kansas City this weekend.

Podsiadlo, 30, was one of three people affiliated with the University — students Brandon McNaughton and Paivo Kinnunen were the others — who traveled south for the contest, which has recognized students for sharing their inventions since 1990. Entries are judged on originality and inventiveness, as well as their potential value to society.

While more than 2,000 teams applied for the contest, 15 or fewer are named finalists and receive an all-expenses paid trip to Kansas City to present their work in front of a panel of judges. A cash prize is awarded to the top graduate and undergraduate winner, as well as the overall grand prize winner.

Podsiadlo‘s new invention was named the top graduate level prize at the final judging.

Podsiadlo created the plastic by taking clay nanotubes and assembling them together in thin sheets, ultimately creating hundreds of layers. The final result resembles a seashell, and allows for a strong, transparent material.

Chemical Engineering Prof. Nicholas Kotov, Podsiadlo’s adviser on the project, said he hopes the application of the plastic steel will be widely used.

“These composites can be applied in biomedical devices, bone replacements for injuries, military applications such as personal protection, microelectromechanical devices and energy generation and storage,” Kotov said.

The creation has already garnered interest from biomedical companies as well as the military.

Podsiadlo acknowledged the prize money was among the biggest draws for him.

“A few years ago, I saw that an undergraduate student from my department, Wei Gu, had won in an undergraduate category,” he said in an e-mail interview. “I thought that it was an incredible opportunity for networking as well as the prize money was quite generous. I could always use it to pay for my student loans.”

Podsiadlo received his Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University earlier in the year. He also received his bachelor’s degree and master’s degree from the University.

Podsiadlo spent more than three years working on his award-winning invention while he was a student at the University. He is now a postdoctoral fellow at Argonne National Laboratory Center in Chicago.

Two other University researchers, McNaughton, a postdoctoral research fellow, and Kinnunen, a graduate student, also flew to Kansas City to present their invention: a device capable of quickly detecting the presence of bacteria.

McNaughton, who started his work over four years ago, said the idea first came to him in the lab when he began his Ph.D. in applied physics.

He was using a microscope to monitor the rotation of tiny magnetic microspheres, which are about 1/100 the width of human hair, when he noticed an odd phenomenon.

“The microspheres started to rotate in a strange manner that we had not observed before, and it was then we realized that this could be applied to the detection of bacteria, as well as monitoring their growth,” McNaughton said.

Kinnunen said he joined the team three years later.

“When Paivo joined, we really started focusing on moving from the microscope to a prototype, which we can actually plug into our computer.” McNaughton said.

McNaughton said he hopes the impacts of their creation will ultimately help save lives. “Our goal is to develop our technology to the point that it can be implemented in a hospital setting and have a dramatic clinical impact. We want to be able to determine the proper antibiotics for patients with bacterial infections in hours instead of the current standard of days,” he said.

His advisor, University Prof. Raoul Kopelman, a Richard Smalley Distinguished University Professor of Chemistry, agrees.

Kopelman wrote in an e-mail that the project’s main emphasis is to develop a rapid method for finding the right antibiotics for bacterial infections.

“Finding quickly the right antibiotics for a patient will, first of all, be good for the patient, but it will also decrease the rate of development of new strains of nasty bacteria that are resistant to antibiotics,” he wrote. “The latter is possibly the worst universal health threat for the coming years.”

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