Published: Jan. 10, 2017

Simon HafnerAn inner-tube water polo match doesn't sound like the kind of place you’d find a mechanical engineering student. This very real, but equally silly sport is a popular intramural at CU Boulder, and not just for students with light academic loads. Floating in one of the inner-tubes is Simon Hafner (MechEngr ’18) , a student who also works as an undergraduate research assistant and has an internship. He's a busy guy, but everyone needs some time for fun.

"The sport is about as ridiculous as it sounds," Hafner says.

While inner-tube water polo is mostly a laugh, Hafner's research has a serious focus: new high-tech batteries. It is a field with major interest from businesses and the federal government.

"If your battery can hold so much charge or go so far, there are federal grants available. We're trying to reach that next level," Hafner says.

His campus research is in professor Se-Hee Lee’s Electrochemical Energy Laboratory, which is primarily populated by master’s and PhD students. Hafner is one of just two undergrads.

“He’s been very responsible and worked very hard. During the academic year it’s difficult for undergrads to spend time in a research lab, but he regularly comes. He’s really exceeded my expectations,” Lee says.

Hafner is a driven student and a high achiever, with the background to prove it.

Boettcher Scholar

He is attending CU Boulder on a Boettcher scholarship, a merit based, four-year, full-ride program for Colorado residents. Only 42 are given out each year. Students have to receive an invitation from their high school guidance counselor just to apply, and even then only about three percent of applicants are selected.

"I was fortunate to go to a really great high school. They had a good STEM program," says Hafner.

Not having to worry about paying for college has given him the chance to really focus in on mechanical engineering.

In addition to his work with Lee, Hafner interns at SiILion, a Boulder start-up founded by two mechanical engineering graduates. The company is also working on advanced battery technology, although much of it is currently under wraps and Hafner is limited in what he can say publicly.

"We have a lot of potential. Tesla has really pushed the limits with what's possible. There will definitely be a market for SiILion's work one day," he says.

Business and Academics

Splitting time between an academic lab and a business facility has shown Hafner two different worlds of research.

"At CU Boulder, we're learning the nitty-gritty science behind the technology. SiILion is more R&D. We care about knowing how something works, but it's more important that it just does," Hafner says.

Being in both environments, he is surrounded by incredible talent and people with advanced degrees. Both founders of SiILion have PhDs in mechanical engineering. It has Hafner considering his own future.

"I think I'll stay on here at the college for the BS/MS, and I'm thinking about a PhD. A lot of the people in the battery industry have PhDs. The whole field is full of really smart people, and to get the knowledge to be a scholar, you get a doctorate" Hafner says.

Hafner is already involved in one major scholarly pursuit that is more typical of master’s and PhD students: writing published research papers. He is a co-author on a paper published in Advanced Energy Materials, and is a co-author of a second paper that is currently under review. It’s an impressive achievement, according to Lee.

“It’s very unusual for an undergrad, but his name is on the papers because he did more than enough of the work and earned it. He’ll have two papers under his belt by the time he graduates, which will help him going forward,” Lee says.

As a junior, Hafner still has plenty of time to decide his next career moves, but his passion is clear.

"There's really cool in-depth chemistry in batteries," Hafner says.

In a field with as much research and commercial potential as advanced batteries, Hafner will have plenty to keep him busy for years to come.