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Batteries and business in Brazil

Capacity building in emerging economies is the theme of this year’s Industrial Physics Forum, which will take place in São Paolo.

When Italian physicist Alessandro Volta was electrocuting frog legs in the 19th century, he was unaware of how vast and significant his subsequent discoveries would be for science and industry. In 1800 Volta designed the world’s first battery, which is not too different from the one that powers your smartphone today. Amy Prieto wants to change that.

Prieto is an associate professor at Colorado State University’s chemistry department. In 2008 she cofounded Prieto Battery. Today’s batteries are too expensive to produce, and they display “low battery” too soon after charging for Prieto’s liking. That is why she and her company are working toward a novel design that is 10 times more powerful, 5 times longer lasting, and less expensive than any battery on the current market.

“We’re trying to build this dream battery with these pretty amazing attributes. But the way that we make it is also pretty unusual,” says Prieto, who is one of many speakers presenting at this year’s Industrial Physics Forum (IPF) Conference on Industrial Physics in Emerging Economies II at the University of Campinas in São Paulo, Brazil.

School of Medical Sciences at the University of Campinas in São Paulo, where the American Institute of Physics and the International Center for Theoretical Physics will host the Industrial Physics Forum 2014 Conference on Industrial Physics in Emerging Economies II. CREDIT: Rsabbatini

School of Medical Sciences at the University of Campinas in São Paulo, where the American Institute of Physics and the International Center for Theoretical Physics will host the Industrial Physics Forum 2014 Conference on Industrial Physics in Emerging Economies II. CREDIT: Rsabbatini

Since 2005 Prieto has been working on the battery, which will be both recyclable and nontoxic. And in about two years, she anticipates commercializing, on a small scale, one piece of the work. At the IPF conference, Prieto will be discussing the battery’s design and progress in hopes of receiving some expert feedback for moving forward.

“It is a nice mix of chemistry and materials science and physics,” says Prieto. “And we really did have an eye long term toward commercializing this battery, and for that reason an Industrial Physics Forum is ideal,” Prieto says.

The theme for this year’s conference is capacity building for industrial physics in emerging economies. Topics will include energy, communications, optics, and health and their role in industrial physics; more specifically, they will focus on scientifically driven economic development in Brazil, greater Latin America, and other regions with emerging economies. The IPF is being co-organized by the American Institute of Physics and the University of Campinas.

“There are a lot of capable people here and opportunity in the area of innovation for startup companies in Brazil,” says Claudius Feger, another speaker at the IPF. Feger is manager of the Smarter Devices team and senior site manager of the Brazil Research Lab in Rio de Janeiro, both part of IBM Research in Brazil.

Feger has been based in Brazil for the past two-and-a-half years, during which time he has overseen IBM’s research on small, marketable electronic devices. The process of managing a business depends on the country, Feger found. At the conference, he will discuss why IBM chose to conduct business in Brazil and the obstacles to and advantages of doing so.

One of the disadvantages, Feger says, is that “people don’t speak English, so you have to speak Portuguese if you really want to do business here … but it’s possible to find good people here. The government has dedicated a lot of money for top universities, which have good equipment and research professionals.”

Energy, biopharma, and science education

In addition to Feger and Prieto, the IPF will host nearly two dozen speakers from companies like Schlumberger in Texas and Recepta Biopharma in Brazil and academic institutions like the University of California, Berkeley, and the National University of Cordoba in Argentina. Whether you’re an established business owner, aspiring entrepreneur, or curious student, the conference has topics and resources for anyone with an interest in international industrial physics.

“I’m very plugged in to the technical entrepreneurship community, and there’s a real need to make that international,” says Douglas Arion, who is the Donald D. Hedberg Distinguished Professor of Entrepreneurial Studies and a professor of physics and astronomy at Carthage College in Wisconsin.

Arion will lead a two-day short course on establishing and maintaining a successful technology-based business, a topic in which he is well versed. In addition to founding the ScienceWorks entrepreneurship program at Carthage and helping to establish the Center for Advanced Technology and Innovation, in 2009 Arion partnered with the International Astronomical Union and the American Astronomical Society to create Galileoscope. The effort develops and distributes low-cost telescopes worldwide to promote science education. So far Galileoscope has given out more than 200 000 telescopes in 106 countries.

“Brazil is one of our biggest customers,” says Arion. “Being part of this [conference] lets me better understand Brazilian technology business and bring that back to others in the entrepreneurship education community.”

Jessica Orwig is the physics resources program associate at the American Institute of Physics in College Park, Maryland.

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