Idaho National Lab and the Nanoantenna

Ira Glass of NPR’s Science Friday interviewed Dr Steven Novack, Physicist and Lead Researcher on the Solar Nanoantenna Project at the Idaho National Laboratory, today. Novack’s team has invented a new method to absorb solar energy that is much more efficient than traditional solar cells. The discussion was fascinating. If you didn’t get a chance to hear it, the podcast is worth downloading.

According to an INA news release,

Researchers have devised an inexpensive way to produce plastic sheets containing billions of nanoantennas that collect heat energy generated by the sun and other sources. The technology, developed at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Idaho National Laboratory, is the first step toward a solar energy collector that could be mass-produced on flexible materials.

While methods to convert the energy into usable electricity still need to be developed, the sheets could one day be manufactured as lightweight “skins” that power everything from hybrid cars to iPods with higher efficiency than traditional solar cells. . . The nanoantennas also have the potential to act as cooling devices that draw waste heat from buildings or electronics without using electricity.

The nanoantennas target mid-infrared rays, which the Earth continuously radiates as heat after absorbing energy from the sun during the day. In contrast, traditional solar cells can only use visible light, rendering them idle after dark. Infrared radiation is an especially rich energy source because it also is generated by industrial processes such as coal-fired plants.

The nanoantennas are tiny gold squares or spirals set in a specially treated form of polyethylene, a material used in plastic bags. While others have successfully invented antennas that collect energy from lower-frequency regions of the electromagnetic spectrum, such as microwaves, infrared rays have proven more elusive. Part of the reason is that materials’ properties change drastically at high-frequency wavelength.

The researchers studied the behavior of various materials — including gold, manganese and copper — under infrared rays and used the resulting data to build computer models of nanoantennas. They found that with the right materials, shape and size, the simulated nanoantennas could harvest up to 92 percent of the energy at infrared wavelengths.

The nanoantennas’ ability to absorb infrared radiation makes them promising cooling devices. Since objects give off heat as infrared rays, the nanoantennas could collect those rays and re-emit the energy at harmless wavelengths. Such a system could cool down buildings and computers without the external power source required by air-conditioners and fans.

This is one more piece to the alternative energy puzzle (see the post below). Novack claimed that between $5 and $15 million is all that would be needed to extend the basic research. Considering the fact that the Iraq war is costing $750 million EVERY DAY, finding the financial support from the federal government would seem to be a “no-brainer.”

Even though both Obama and McCain claim an interest in alternative energy, will McCain really be willing to expend the resources when he represents “big oil,” and plans to continue (or expand) Bush’s neo-con military adventurism? Again, the answer to that question is a “no-brainer.”



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