As a CU student, alum or supporter, you can take pride in the amazing discoveries and inventions that have been created by people in your community. CU is full of innovators, who have changed the world in ways both big and small. Here are 10 inventions and discoveries made by CU faculty and alumni.
1. Post-it Note Adhesive
You might use them to leave reminders or label your lunch. Maybe you’re a Post-it traditionalist who uses them for the originally intended purpose — to bookmark your pages. No matter what you stick them to, you can thank CU alum Spencer Silver (PhDA&S’66). While working as a senior chemist for 3M’s Central Research Labs in 1968, Silver developed the reusable adhesive that eventually became a main component of Post-it Notes, which launched in 1980.
2. Liquid Crystals
Researchers at CU Boulder, led by physics professor Ivan Smalyukh, have designed new kinds of liquid crystals that mirror the complex internal structure of some solid crystals. The group’s findings, published in the journal Nature, could one day be used to create new, more energy efficient types of smart windows and television and computer displays.
3. 3D Printing
Late one night in 1983, CU alum Chuck Hull (EngrPhys’61) made a scientific breakthrough with his creation of a small plastic cup. Although seemingly unassuming, the cup was the first object to be created using stereolithography, better known as 3D printing. Hull’s discovery became the basis for the 3D printing that is a common practice across industries and homes today. After securing a patent for stereolithography in 1986, he founded his company, 3D Systems. Hull is now a member of the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
4. Dry Fogger
In 1982, after freezing solid the set of Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video for 20 hours, CU alum Jim Doyle (Thtr’78) thought there had the be a better way to create fog than with liquid nitrogen. Doyle got to work and created a fog machine, which quickly became the industry standard. By 1986, Doyle’s dry fogger was used on the opening night of Alice Cooper’s “Nightmare Returns” tour. Later, Doyle received a 1992 Academy Award for its use in Terminator 2.
5. Inhalable Measles Vaccine
In 2010, a team of researchers led by CU chemistry and biochemistry professor Robert Sievers developed an inhalable measles vaccine, which works when patients breathe in a puff of dry powder. One main goal of the inhalable inoculation is to mitigate needle use, as needles can be scary to some and can pose difficulties in disposal.
In 1960, CU alum Theodore Maiman (EngrPhys’49) developed the laser with the help of his research assistant Charles Asawa. At the age of 32, Maiman had invented an essential technology that is now used across all aspects of life, ranging from manufacturing to surgery to grocery store checkout scanners. Maiman was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 1984.
7. Bose-Einstein Condensate
In 1995, in a laboratory at JILA, a joint institute of CU Boulder and NIST, CU Boulder physics professor Carl E. Wieman and colleague Eric A. Cornell, a research physicist and NIST fellow, led the team that produced the first Bose-Einstein condensate, which is a group of atoms chilled almost to absolute zero. When a group of atoms is in this state, they begin to act as though they are a single atom, which lends itself to superconductive properties. For this discovery, Wieman and Cornell were awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physics.
You’re living in the age of Netflix, Hulu and HBO Max, so it might be hard to remember what having cable is even like. But before the streaming giants took over, TiVo was a leader in on-demand television. In 1997, CU alum Jim Barton (ElEngr, CompSci’80; MCompSci’82) and business partner Mike Ramsey founded what would become TiVo, which was best known for the device that allowed viewers to record and save television programs onto a hard drive for later viewing, and to pause and rewind live TV.
9. Quantum Squeezing
In their efforts to better understand dark matter — the substance that likely makes up most of the universe’s mass — a group of scientists, including many at CU’s JILA research institute, developed quantum squeezing. In February 2021, led in part by CU alum Daniel Palken (MPhys’18; PhD’20) and NIST fellow Konrad Lehnert, the scientists found that their new approach to searching for axions allows them to better separate the signals of axions from the less relevant signals of quantum fluctuations. All this is to say that this method puts the scientific community one step closer to understanding the mysterious dark matter.
10. Body Battery
In 2021, Jianliang Xiao, a mechanical engineering associate professor at CU Boulder, created a small, wearable device that uses thermoelectric generators to convert body heat into power. The device is made from polyimine, a material that is stretchy and can heal itself. The hope is that this fully recyclable gadget can someday help power fitness watches and other wearable devices.