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Professor strives to promote sustainability

September 19, 2012

Devices 100 times thinner than a strand of hair and pea-sized computer chips, are making a substantial difference in the future of energy efficiency.

Plans for interdisciplinary research are being made to effectively utilize the newly developed Discovery Park.


Ali Shakouri, professor of electrical and computer engineering and director of the Birck Nanotechnology Center, is in his first year at Purdue and was attracted here because of his interest in interdisciplinary research. With a whiteboard littered with heat-to-electricity equations in his office, Shakouri discussed the work he is doing to help develop research opportunities across disciplines.

"A lot of problems in society require interdisciplinary skills," Shakouri said. "Part of my job is to see how we can better connect various groups, advance research fields and create major research centers that distinguish us from other universities."

Timothy Fisher, professor of mechanical engineering, has known Shakouri for about 10 years and said Shakouri is building the foundation of a large research initiative.

"Ali has done outstanding work in increasing the transparency of the operations at the Birck Center through frequent exchanges with faculty, staff and other users about priorities, operational expenditures and future plans," Fisher said.

Some of Shakouri's research includes converting heat into electricity, which can be used to convert wasted heat in cars to electricity.

"The exhaust heats up to about 500 degrees Celsius. All of that is energy that doesn't move the car. Our idea is that by using some materials we can convert part of that energy into electricity to move the car," Shakouri said.

Shakouri said there is more to discovery than curiosity, such as improving sustainability measures for future generations. One way he would like to make a difference is by starting a sustainability course that would be offered to an interdisciplinary mixture of technical and non-technical majors. However, Fisher is unsure of the timeline for when the course will be offered.

"One unfortunate characteristic that he seems to have acquired from the Purdue administrative culture is a reluctance to teach classes," Fisher said. "He knows that I will tease him mercilessly and publicly about this issue until he teaches a class."

Shakouri is originally from Iran, but finished high school and undergraduate work in Paris. He earned masters and doctoral degrees at the California Institute of Technology and did post-doctorate work at the University of California, Santa Barbara before working at the University of California, Santa Cruz. He said it will take a collaborative effort for sustainability to truly work.

"We see everybody around us with certain resources and we think they're available to everyone. That's not the case … I think we should be more aware and more engaged," Shakouri said. "If everyone thinks together, there is so much one can do. We should not be paralyzed by the big picture ideas."

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