Scialog: Present at the Creation
Solar energy scientists and officials of Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), a foundation dedicated to science, pose in front of Biosphere 2. RCSA recently hosted the first-ever Scialog conference to encourage science dialog and breakthrough ideas among researchers who focus on improving efficiencies in solar energy conversion. The group included 13 Scialog awardees, as well as researchers funded by the National Science Foundation. Participants had the opportunity to form new teams and earn an extra $100,000 in funding by presenting new ideas. RCSA and Top Researchers Begin a Major New Experiment to Accelerate the Pace of Science Advancement. I felt I was present at the creation of new science, and it was appearing right before my eyes. It was being sketched on flip charts rather than on the backs of envelopes, with fellow scientists chiming in with ideas to make the proposed next steps even better, light bulbs coming on as suggestions flew. I could feel the spirit of innovation in the room.
President & CEO
Research Corporation for Science Advancement
How does a new idea originate? Scialog is a conference, held by Research Corporation for Science Advancement, which seeks to foster new ideas and to catalyze innovation and discovery through the combination of science and dialog. The October, 2010, Scialog event at Biosphere 2 north of Tucson, Arizona, focused on solar energy conversion. It was co-sponsored by the National Science Foundation, with in-kind contributions from the University of Arizona. “Scialog: Solar Energy Conversion” brought 50 people together for more than two days. Attending were newly tenured professors doing high-risk/high-reward solar-energy research, as well as top national authorities in photovoltaics and solar fuels. They gave presentations on their research projects and participated in sessions of structured dialog. The conference was facilitated by Dr. Elizabeth McCormack, Dean of Graduate Studies and Professor of Physics at Bryn Mawr College. The Scialog process culminated in the formation of new research teams, comprised of conference participants, who had the opportunity to submit proposals for additional RCSA funding above the $1.35 million already awarded to 13 grantees. Those proposed collaborative projects are being evaluated now by a prestigious committee of scientists. The additional awards of $100,000 per team will be announced shortly, according to RCSA Program Officer Richard Wiener, who coordinated the conference. RCSA President & CEO James Gentile opened the conference - the first of three annual meetings on improving efficiency in solar energy conversion - by highlighting Scialog’s goals of building a network among researchers, creating a community to approach difficult problems in new and innovative ways, and producing “transformative” discoveries - breakthroughs that change the way science sees the world and consequently change the world itself. Conference talks and discussions ranged from precise technical details on how to squeeze more useable power from the humble photon, the basic constituent of light, to the tremendous need for a new global industrial revolution centered on clean, renewable energy. It’s a revolution that must occur within the next two decades if tomorrow’s 10 billion people are to live comfortably on planet earth, according to Scialog keynote speaker Arun Majumdar, Director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (D.O.E.) Advanced Research Projects Agency - Energy (ARPA-E). Also delivering keynote addresses were Nate Lewis, Caltech, head of the D.O.E.‘s new, $122-million solar fuels hub; Eric Mazur, noted Harvard expert on science education and a pioneer of “black silicon,” a potential breakthrough material in solar power; Roger Angel, the University of Arizona Kavli Prize winner and MacArthur Foundation “genius grant” awardee; and Arizona State University Professor Tom Moore, a major national figure in photosynthesis and solar energy. Majumdar warned that the world’s need for renewable energy is fast becoming “the mother of all necessity,” especially in the fastest-growing, least-developed regions of the globe. He pointed out that the opportunities for business and industry in filling the needs for solar and other forms of renewable energy, both abroad and domestically, are likely to be enormous in the coming decades. He also noted that America will have to become more efficient in the way it uses energy - through smart electrical grids, energy efficient buildings, and new modes of fueling transportation. Majumdar said it’s time for the U.S. to work toward the 21st-century equivalent of the 1969 moon shot, this time for energy independence, which he called a “sun shot.” “So here is one aspect of that sun shot,” he said. “Photovoltaics at $1 a watt fully installed. By 2017 demonstration of all key components and installation methods and systems at least five megawatts in size and initial production orders made. This target could be met with systems installed in the ground and/or in buildings, and with earth-abundant materials and recyclable components that meet all the applicable safety and environmental standards.” He said the D.O.E. is planning to target funds to catalyze the sun shot and make America energy independent. Majumdar praised RCSA’s efforts to help accelerate the pace of innovation in solar energy conversion, observing: “It was a pleasure to participate in the vibrant technical discussions at Scialog. Given the talent and enthusiasm of the participants, I would not be surprised in the least if the collaborations formed at the event led to major new scientific thrusts.” One aspect of the D.O.E. sun-shot funding move is headed by another Scialog keynote speaker, Caltech’s Nate Lewis. He’s in charge of the Energy Department’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), a new “Energy Innovation Hub” recently funded at $122 million to develop solar fuels. Lewis said scientists can best contribute to the demand for renewable energy by coming up with “disruptive” discoveries - those that allow technology to “do new things in entirely new ways.” He quoted D.O.E. Secretary Steve Chu as saying, “Science and technology can give us better choices than we have now,” and, as an example, Lewis challenged Scialog attendees to come up with a working model of artificial photosynthesis - something that has yet to be achieved, despite scientists’ growing understanding of how plants convert sunlight into energy. Lewis outlined the major bottlenecks- at least those currently apparent - to breakthrough discoveries in three main areas of solar energy conversion: photovoltaics, solar fuels and solar thermal power generation. One person who has overcome a bottleneck when it comes to making silicon into an efficient solar conversion material is Harvard University’s Eric Mazur, a noted science educator and physics researcher in ultrashort laser pulses. He and his colleagues discovered - somewhat serendipitously, Mazur is quick to admit—“black silicon,” a high-efficiency solar conversion material. Mazur discussed the technical aspects of black silicon in his keynote speech at Scialog, saying that in 1990 his research team, led by associate James Carey, first produced the curious material by hitting a standard silicon wafer with a series of 100-femtosecond laser pulses (a femtosecond is one quadrillionth of a second) in a chamber with sulfur hexafluoride gas. “The region of the silicon that had been hit by the femtosecond laser pulses turned completely black,” Mazur said. More interestingly, the process greatly increased the material’s ability to absorb sunlight, including wavelengths from near UV to near infrared. (Most solar cells work only in a limited portion of the visible-light spectrum.) The rough surface and deep valleys carved into the silicon wafer (relatively speaking - the “valleys” are actually only several hundred microns deep) by the laser pulses increased the silicon’s ability to absorb visible light, he noted, adding that subsequent studies showed a great deal of sulfur had been attached, through melting, to the remaining surface of the silicon that had not been ablated by the laser strikes. Mazur has formed a company to take advantage of black silicon’s sensitivity - in optical detectors it is roughly 100 to 500 times more sensitive to light than untreated silicon - and the material is being studied for use in generating electricity from sunlight. Another keynote speaker, world-renowned telescope designer Roger Angel, of the University of Arizona, also has a promising solar-energy technology he would like to see commercialized. Angel told Scialog attendees how he has taken his expertise in constructing giant mirrored telescopes and applied that knowledge to engineering a concentrating photovoltaic system that focuses sunlight on a highly efficient triple-junction solar cell. This type of solar cell was originally designed for use in orbiting satellites and is too expensive for use in ordinary solar panels that use unfocused sunlight. Angel described the time and effort he spent engineering a relatively inexpensive solar collector system to focus sunlight at 1,000 times its normal intensity onto the triple-junction cell so that the use of the expensive cell here on earth is now approaching economic viability. Angel believes his solar-concentrator device, if replicated tens of thousands of times and spread over roughly 120-square miles of sun-drenched land in the Southwest, could provide enough electricity to power most of the United States. Thomas Moore, Arizona State University chemistry professor and a world expert on the cutting-edge move to meld photosynthesis with artificial systems, joked that there’s nothing wrong with our planet’s changing climate that couldn’t be fixed by simply moving the earth’s orbit a mere 350,000 kilometers farther from the sun. “That’s a proposal that’s in the literature, and we take full credit for it,” Moore said, triggering laughter in his audience. He went on to discuss ideas concerning goals for artificial photosynthesis inspired by Oliver Morton’s recent book, Eating the Sun. Moore quoted Morton, chief news and features editor at Nature magazine, as saying, “When our knowledge of life’s most fundamental processes allows us to begin redesigning and embellishing them rather than just studying them, a whole range of new chemical technologies will become possible.” Moore outlined ways that chemistry and physics are being used to redesign photosynthesis and discussed how Scialog attendees would be contributing to a future in which synthetic biology will help power the planet. The Scialog conference also featured a lively panel discussion about the funding landscape for solar energy researchers, with Linda Sapochak, a chemist and head of the Division of Materials Research for the National Science Foundation, and Elaine Ulrich, an optical scientist and senior legislative aide to U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-AZ. Sapochak, whose office oversaw more than a billion dollars in awards in 2009, explained key NSF programs and provided advice to grant seekers. She also reviewed the NSF’s Solar Energy Initiative, which encourages interdisciplinary research and includes math as a core discipline. “I believe the Scialog Conference proved to be an excellent mechanism to leverage RCSA and NSF’s investment in solar energy research and initiate new collaborations between research communities,” Sapochak said. Ulrich provided information about congressional funding and support for research. She advises Giffords, a member of the House Committee on Science and Technology and a national leader in advocacy for solar energy. Ulrich urged researchers to establish relationships with their own congressional representatives and outlined ways to build these connections. She emphasized that this both helps researchers receive visibility and funding for their projects, and she added that it educates our leaders and fellow citizens about the importance of scientific discovery in creating national prosperity and security. Meanwhile, the Scialog process continues to move forward. RCSA Vice President Martha Gilliland outlined the agenda: “Our next steps for this Scialog on solar conversion include several awards for collaborations that emerged at the first conference, a round of awards to new people, two more conferences, and assessment of the social networks that emerge,” Gilliland said. “And, we are planning more Scialogs on other complex global issues, both those associated with climate change and others. Within the climate change framework, a Scialog on solar storage is a possibility.” Gilliland added that other Scialogs may be targeted at breakthroughs at the interface of physics and biology or at the interface of neuroscience and nanoscience. “We are now modifying our annual summer conference on the university scholar to utilize the Scialog conference methodology,” she said.