Posts belonging to Category light

Solar Energy Transforms Salt Water Into Fresh Drinking Water

A federally funded research effort to revolutionize water treatment has yielded an off-grid technology that uses energy from sunlight alone to turn salt water into fresh drinking water. The desalination system, which uses a combination of membrane distillation technology and light-harvesting nanophotonics, is the first major innovation from the Center for Nanotechnology Enabled Water Treatment (NEWT), a multi-institutional engineering research center based at Rice University.

NEWT’s “nanophotonics-enabled solar membrane distillation” technology, or NESMD, combines tried-and-true water treatment methods with cutting-edge nanotechnology that converts sunlight to heat. More than 18,000 desalination plants operate in 150 countries, but NEWT’s desalination technology is unlike any other used today.

Direct solar desalination could be a game changer for some of the estimated 1 billion people who lack access to clean drinking water,” said Rice scientist and water treatment expert Qilin Li, a corresponding author on the study. “This off-grid technology is capable of providing sufficient clean water for family use in a compact footprint, and it can be scaled up to provide water for larger communities.”

The technology is described online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Nano-based Material Is 60 Times More Efficient To Produce Hydrogen

Global climate change and the energy crisis mean that alternatives to fossil fuels are urgently needed. Among the cleanest low-carbon fuels is hydrogen, which can react with oxygen to release energy, emitting nothing more harmful than water (H2O) as the product. However, most hydrogen on earth is already locked into H2O (or other molecules), and cannot be used for power.

Hydrogen can be generated by splitting H2O, but this uses more energy than the produced hydrogen can give back. Water splitting is often driven by solar power, so-called “solar-to-hydrogenconversion. Materials like titanium oxide, known as semiconductors with the wide band-gap, are traditionally used to convert sunlight to chemical energy for the photocatalytic reaction. However, these materials are inefficient because only the ultraviolet (UV) part of light is absorbed—the rest spectrum of sunlight is wasted.

Now, a team in Osaka University has developed a material to harvest a broader spectrum of sunlight. The three-part composites of this material maximize both absorbing light and its efficiency for water splitting. The core is a traditional semiconductor, lanthanum titanium oxide (LTO). The LTO surface is partly coated with tiny specks of gold, known as nanoparticles. Finally, the gold-covered LTO is mixed with ultrathin sheets of the element black phosphorus (BP), which acts as a light absorber.

BP is a wonderful material for solar applications, because we can tune the frequency of light just by varying its thickness, from ultrathin to bulk,” the team leader Tetsuro Majima says. “This allows our new material to absorb visible and even near infrared light, which we could never achieve with LTO alone.”

By absorbing this broad sweep of energy, BP is stimulated to release electrons, which are then conducted to the gold nanoparticles coating the LTO. Gold nanoparticles also absorb visible light, causing some of its own electrons to be jolted out. The free electrons in both BP and gold nanoparticles are then transferred into the LTO semiconductor, where they act as an electric current for water splitting.

Hydrogen production using this material is enhanced not only by the broader spectrum of light absorption, but by the more efficient electron conduction, caused by the unique interface between two dimensional materials of BP and LTO. As a result, the material is 60 times more active than pure LTO.


Super-Efficient Production Of Hydrogen From Solar Energy

Hydrogen is an alternative source of energy that can be produced from renewable sources of sunlight and water. A group of Japanese researchers has developed a photocatalyst that increases hydrogen production tenfold.

When light is applied to photocatalysts, electrons and holes are produced on the surface of the catalyst, and hydrogen is obtained when these electrons reduce the hydrogen ions in water. However, in traditional photocatalysts the holes that are produced at the same time as the electrons mostly recombine on the surface of the catalyst and disappear, making it difficult to increase conversion efficiency.

Professor Tachikawa’s research group from the Kobe University developed a photocatalyst made of mesocrystal, deliberately creating a lack of uniformity in size and arrangement of the crystals. This new photocatalyst is able to spatially separate the electrons and electron holes to prevent them recombining. As a result, it has a far more efficient conversion rate for producing hydrogen than conventional nanoparticulate photocatalysts (approximately 7%).

The team developed a new method called “Topotactic Epitaxial Growth” that uses the nanometer-sized spaces in mesocrystals.
Using these findings, the research group plans to apply mesocrystal technology to realizing the super-efficient production of hydrogen from solar energy. The perovskite metal oxides, including strontium titanate, the target of this study, are the fundamental materials of electronic elements, so their results could be applied to a wide range of fields.

The discovery was made by a joint research team led by Associate Professor Tachikawa Takashi (Molecular Photoscience Research Center, Kobe University) and Professor Majima Tetsuro (Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research, Osaka University). Their findings were published  in the online version of Angewandte Chemie International Edition.


Super-material Bends, Shapes And Focuses Sound Waves

These tiny 3D-printed bricks could one day allow people to create their own acoustics. That’s the plan of scientists from the universities of Bristol and Sussex. They’ve invented a metamaterial which bends and manipulates sound in any way the user wants. It’s helped scientists create what they call a ‘sonic alphabet‘.


We have discovered that you just need 16 bricks to make any type of sound that you can imagine. You can shape the sound just with 16 of them, just like you create any words with just 26 letters,” says Dr. Gianluca Memoli, researcher at Interact Lab at University of Sussex.

DIY kits like this, full of batches of the 16 aural letters, could help users create a sound library, or even help people in the same car to hear separate things.

With our device what you can have is you can strap a static piece on top of existing speakers and they can direct sound in two different directions without any overlap. So the passengers can hear completely different information from the driver,” explains Professor Sri Subramanian Interact Lab at University of Sussex. This technology is more than five years away, but smaller versions could be used to direct medical ultrasound devices far sooner.  “In a year we could have a sleeve that we can put on top of already existing projects in the market and make them just a little bit better. For example, we can have a sleeve that goes on top of ultrasound pain relieving devices that are used for therapeutic pain,” he adds.
Researchers say spatial sound modulators will one day allow us to perform audible tasks previously unheard of.


Liquid Storage Of The Sun’s Power

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Sweden have demonstrated efficient solar energy storage in a chemical liquid. The stored energy can be transported and then released as heat whenever needed. ​Many consider the sun the energy source of the future. But one challenge is that it is difficult to store solar energy and deliver the energy ‘on demand’.

The research team from Chalmers University has shown that it is possible to convert the solar energy directly into energy stored in the bonds of a chemical fluid – a so-called molecular solar thermal system. The liquid chemical makes it possible to store and transport the solar energy and release it on demand, with full recovery of the storage medium. The process is based on the organic compound norbornadiene that upon exposure to light converts into quadricyclane.

The technique means that we can store the solar energy in chemical bonds and release the energy as heat whenever we need it,’ says Professor Kasper Moth-Poulsen, who is leading the research team. ‘Combining the chemical energy storage with water heating solar panels enables a conversion of more than 80 percent of the incoming sunlight.’

The research project was initiated at Chalmers more than six years ago and the research team contributed in 2013 to a first conceptual demonstration. At the time, the solar energy conversion efficiency was 0.01 percent and the expensive element ruthenium played a major role in the compound. Now, four years later, the system stores 1.1 percent of the incoming sunlight as latent chemical energy – an improvement of a factor of 100. Also, ruthenium has been replaced by much cheaper carbon-based elements.

We saw an opportunity to develop molecules that make the process much more efficient,’ says Moth-Poulsen. ‘At the same time, we are demonstrating a robust system that can sustain more than 140 energy storage and release cycles with negligible degradation.’

The research is presented on the cover of the scientific journal Energy & Environmental Science.


Clean Hydrogen Produced From Biomass

A team of scientists at the University of Cambridge has developed a way of using solar power to generate a fuel that is both sustainable and relatively cheap to produce. It’s using natural light to generate hydrogen from biomass. One of the challenges facing modern society is what it does with its waste products. As natural resources decline in abundance, using waste for energy is becoming more pressing for both governments and business. Biomass has been a source of heat and energy since the beginning of recorded history.  The planet’s oil reserves are derived from ancient biomass which has been subjected to high pressures and temperatures over millions of years. Lignocellulose is the main component of plant biomass and up to now its conversion into hydrogen has only been achieved through a gasification process which uses high temperatures to decompose it fully.

biomass can produce hydrogen

Lignocellulose is nature’s equivalent to armoured concrete. It consists of strong, highly crystalline cellulose fibres, that are interwoven with lignin and hemicellulose which act as a glue. This rigid structure has evolved to give plants and trees mechanical stability and protect them from degradation, and makes chemical utilisation of lignocellulose so challenging,” says  Dr Moritz Kuehnel, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Cambridge and co-author of the research.

The new technology relies on a simple photocatalytic conversion process. Catalytic nanoparticles are added to alkaline water in which the biomass is suspended. This is then placed in front of a light in the lab which mimics solar light. The solution is ideal for absorbing this light and converting the biomass into gaseous hydrogen which can then be collected from the headspace. The hydrogen is free of fuel-cell inhibitors, such as carbon monoxide, which allows it to be used for power.

The findings have been  published in Nature Energy.


Graphene And Fractals Boost The Solar Power Storage By 3000%

Inspired by an American fern, researchers have developed a groundbreaking prototype that could be the answer to the storage challenge still holding solar back as a total energy solution. The new type of electrode created by RMIT University (Australia) researchers could boost the capacity of existing integrable storage technologies by 3000 per cent. But the graphene-based prototype also opens a new path to the development of flexible thin film all-in-one solar capture and storage, bringing us one step closer to self-powering smart phones, laptops, cars and buildings. The new electrode is designed to work with supercapacitors, which can charge and discharge power much faster than conventional batteries. Supercapacitors have been combined with solar, but their wider use as a storage solution is restricted because of their limited capacity.

RMIT’s Professor Min Gu said the new design drew on nature’s own genius solution to the challenge of filling a space in the most efficient way possible – through intricate self-repeating patterns known as “fractals”.

The leaves of the western swordfern are densely crammed with veins, making them extremely efficient for storing energy and transporting water around the plant,” said Gu, Leader of the Laboratory of Artificial Intelligence Nanophotonics at RMIT.

mimicking fern

Our electrode is based on these fractal shapes – which are self-replicating, like the mini structures within snowflakes – and we’ve used this naturally-efficient design to improve solar energy storage at a nano level. “The immediate application is combining this electrode with supercapacitors, as our experiments have shown our prototype can radically increase their storage capacity30 times more than current capacity limits.   “Capacity-boosted supercapacitors would offer both long-term reliability and quick-burst energy release – for when someone wants to use solar energy on a cloudy day for example – making them ideal alternatives for solar power storage.”  Combined with supercapacitors, the fractal-enabled laser-reduced graphene electrodes can hold the stored charge for longer, with minimal leakage.


Clean Renewable Source Of Hydrogen Fuel For Electric Car

Rice University scientists have created an efficient, simple-to-manufacture oxygen-evolution catalyst that pairs well with semiconductors for solar water splitting, the conversion of solar energy to chemical energy in the form of hydrogen and oxygen.

anode RiceA photo shows an array of titanium dioxide nanorods with an even coating of an iron, manganese and phosphorus catalyst. The combination developed by scientists at Rice University and the University of Houston is a highly efficient photoanode for artificial photosynthesis. Click on the image for a larger version

The lab of Kenton Whitmire, a Rice professor of chemistry, teamed up with researchers at the University of Houston and discovered that growing a layer of an active catalyst directly on the surface of a light-absorbing nanorod array produced an artificial photosynthesis material that could split water at the full theoretical potential of the light-absorbing semiconductor with sunlight. An oxygen-evolution  catalyst splits water into hydrogen and oxygen. Finding a clean renewable source of hydrogen fuel is the focus of extensive research, but the technology has not yet been commercialized.

The Rice team came up with a way to combine three of the most abundant metalsiron, manganese and phosphorus — into a precursor that can be deposited directly onto any substrate without damaging it. To demonstrate the material, the lab placed the precursor into its custom chemical vapor deposition (CVD) furnace and used it to coat an array of light-absorbing, semiconducting titanium dioxide nanorods. The combined material, called a photoanode, showed excellent stability while reaching a current density of 10 milliamps per square centimeter, the researchers reported.

The results appear in two new studies. The first, on the creation of the films, appears in Chemistry: A European Journal. The second, which details the creation of photoanodes, appears in ACS Nano.


Cheap, Non-Toxic, Super Efficient Solar Cell

In the future, solar cells can become twice as efficient by employing a few smart little nano-tricks. Researchers are currently developing the environment-friendly solar cells of the future, which will capture twice as much energy as the cells of today. The trick is to combine two different types of solar cells in order to utilize a much greater portion of the sunlight.


These are going to be the world’s most efficient and environment-friendly solar cells. There are currently solar cells that are certainly just as efficient, but they are both expensive and toxic. Furthermore, the materials in our solar cells are readily available in large quantities on Earth. That is an important point,” says Professor Bengt Svensson of the Department of Physics at the University of Oslo (UiO) and Centre for Materials Science and Nanotechnology (SMN) in Norway.

Using nanotechnology, atoms and molecules can be combined into new materials with very special properties. The goal is to utilize even more of the spectrum of sunlight than is possible at present. Ninety-nine per cent of today’s solar cells are made from silicon, which is one of the most common elements on Earth. Unfortunately, silicon solar cells only utilize 20 per cent of the sunlight. The world record is 25 per cent, but these solar cells are laced with rare materials that are also toxic. The theoretical limit is 30 per cent. The explanation for this limit is that silicon cells primarily capture the light waves from the red spectrum of sunlight. That means that most of the light waves remain unutilized.

The new solar cells will be composed of two energy-capturing layers. The first layer will still be composed of silicon cells. “The red wavelengths of sunlight generate electricity in the silicon cells in a highly efficient manner. We’ve done a great deal of work with silicon, so there is only a little more to gain.” The new trick is to add another layer on top of the silicon cells. This layer is composed of copper oxide and is supposed to capture the light waves from the blue spectrum of sunlight.


Virtual Images that Blend In And Interact With The Real-World

Avegant, a Silicon Valley startup that sells a pair of headphones equipped with a VR-like portable screen, is breaking into augmented reality. The company today announced that it’s developed a new type of headset technology powered by a so-called light field display.


The research prototype, which Avegant eventually plans on turning into a consumer product, is based on the company’s previous work with its Glyph projector. That device was a visor of sorts that floats a virtual movie screen in front of your eyes, and developing it gave Avegant insight into how to build an AR headset of its own.

Like Microsoft’s HoloLens and the supposed prototype from secretive AR startup Magic Leap, Avegant’s new headset creates virtual images that blend in and interact with the real-world environment. In a demo, the company’s wired prototype proved to be superior in key ways to the developer version of the HoloLens. Avegant attributes this not to the power of its tethered PC, but to the device’s light field display — a technology Magic Leap also claims to have developed, yet has never been shown off to the public.

The demo I experienced featured a tour of a virtual Solar System, an immersion within an ocean environment, and a conversation with a virtual life-sized human being standing in the same room. To be fair, Avegant was using a tethered and bulky headset that wasn’t all that comfortable, while the HoloLens developer version is a refined wireless device. Yet with that said, Avegant’s prototype managed to expand the field of view, so you’re looking through a window more the size of a Moleskine notebook instead of a pack of playing cards. The images it produced also felt sharper, richer, and more realistic.

In the Solar System demo, I was able to observe a satellite orbiting an Earth no larger than a bocce ball and identify the Big Red Spot on Jupiter. Avegant constructed its demo to show off how these objects could exist at different focal lengths in a fixed environment — in this case a converted conference room at the company’s Belmont, California office. So I was able to stand behind the Sun and squint until the star went out of focus in one corner of my vision and a virtual Saturn and its rings became crystal clear in the distance.


Nano-Implant Could Restore Sight

A team of engineers at the University of California San Diego (UC San Diego)  and La Jolla-based startup Nanovision Biosciences Inc. have developed the nanotechnology and wireless electronics for a new type of retinal prosthesis that brings research a step closer to restoring the ability of neurons in the retina to respond to light. The researchers demonstrated this response to light in a rat retina interfacing with a prototype of the device in vitro. The technology could help tens of millions of people worldwide suffering from neurodegenerative diseases that affect eyesight, including macular degeneration, retinitis pigmentosa and loss of vision due to diabetes.

Despite tremendous advances in the development of retinal prostheses over the past two decades, the performance of devices currently on the market to help the blind regain functional vision is still severely limited—well under the acuity threshold of 20/200 that defines legal blindness.

cortical neuronsPrimary cortical neurons cultured on the surface of an array of optoelectronic nanowires. Note the extensive neurite outgrowth and network formation

We want to create a new class of devices with drastically improved capabilities to help people with impaired vision,” said Gabriel A. Silva, one of the senior authors of the work and professor in bioengineering and ophthalmology at UC San Diego. Silva also is one of the original founders of Nanovision.

Power is delivered wirelessly, from outside the body to the implant, through an inductive powering telemetry system developed by a team led by Cauwenberghs.

The device is highly energy efficient because it minimizes energy losses in wireless power and data transmission and in the stimulation process, recycling electrostatic energy circulating within the inductive resonant tank, and between capacitance on the electrodes and the resonant tank. Up to 90 percent of the energy transmitted is actually delivered and used for stimulation, which means less RF wireless power emitting radiation in the transmission, and less heating of the surrounding tissue from dissipated power. For proof-of-concept, the researchers inserted the wirelessly powered nanowire array beneath a transgenic rat retina with rhodopsin P23H knock-in retinal degeneration.

The findings are published in a recent issue of the Journal of Neural Engineering.



Wireless Power

A new method developed by Disney Research for wirelessly transmitting power throughout a room enables users to charge electronic devices as seamlessly as they now connect to WiFi hotspots, eliminating the need for electrical cords or charging cradles. The researchers demonstrated their method, called quasistatic cavity resonance (QSCR), inside a specially built 16-by-16-foot room at their lab. They safely generated near-field standing magnetic waves that filled the interior of the room, making it possible to power several cellphones, fans and lights simultaneously.


This new innovative method will make it possible for electrical power to become as ubiquitous as WiFi,” said Alanson Sample, associate lab director & principal research scientist at Disney Research. “This in turn could enable new applications for robots and other small mobile devices by eliminating the need to replace batteries and wires for charging.

In this work, we’ve demonstrated room-scale wireless power, but there’s no reason we couldn’t scale this down to the size of a toy chest or up to the size of a warehouse,” said Sample, who leads the lab’s Wireless Systems Group.

According to Sample, is a long-standing technological dream. Celebrated inventor Nikola Tesla famously demonstrated a wireless lighting system in the 1890s and proposed a system for transmitting power long distances to homes and factories, though it never came to fruition. Today, most wireless power transmission occurs over very short distances, typically involving charging stands or pads.

The QSCR method involves inducing electrical currents in the metalized walls, floor and ceiling of a room, which in turn generate uniform magnetic fields that permeate the room’s interior. This enables power to be transmitted efficiently to receiving coils that operate at the same resonant frequency as the magnetic fields. The induced currents in the structure are channeled through discrete capacitors, which isolate potentially harmful electrical fields.

Our simulations show we can transmit 1.9 kilowatts of power while meeting federal safety guidelines,” Chabalko said. “This is equivalent to simultaneously charging 320 smart phones.”

A research report on QSCR by the Disney Research team of Matthew J. Chabalko, Mohsen Shahmohammadi and Alanson P. Sample was published in the online journal PLOS ONE.