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Frontiers in
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Newsletter
May 2011

Breaking through Traditional Limits

Working towards innovative energy solutions that exceed conventional engineering limits

Maria Luckyanova

Scientists have traditionally strived to create ways to achieve theoretical operational limits through conventional applications of scientific and engineering principles. Recently, however, a new breed of scientist is striving for something more ambitious: breaking these traditional limits altogether with unorthodox approaches to traditional problems. To promote such healthy rule-breaking, the Department of Energy began the Energy Frontier Research Centers in 2009 to accelerate such transformative technology. In this inaugural issue of the EFRC newsletter, we report on the progress occurring in a variety of the EFRCs, and feature groundbreaking work occurring in the pursuit of unique energy solutions.

The EFRCs were initiated to rapidly advance scientific progress on our nation’s energy problems. Peter Bermel, a member of the Solid State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion Center, works on the development of high-efficiency thermophotovoltaic systems. In discussing the potential benefits of the EFRCs to the average taxpayer, Bermel explains that it is crucial to drive up the efficiency of these alternative energy sources to make them price-competitive with fossil fuels.

In this vein, Bermel and his colleagues are trying to exceed current system-scale efficiency limits for solar energy conversion technologies. Bermel believes that using thermophotovoltaic systems in place of traditional photovoltaics could make solar energy a viable and price-competitive energy option. Part of the success of Bermel’s and other EFRCs work relies on the invention and characterization of novel nanoscale materials and structures.

The explosion in the use and understanding of nanoscale structures and materials has enabled rapid progress in breaking traditional limits. For example, Planck’s black-body radiation law, which imposes a limit on the radiative energy transfer between two bodies, is valid on a macroscale, but work from 2009 shows that energy transfer can vastly exceed the Planck limit over distances on the order of or smaller than the wavelength of the radiation.

The spirit of exploration and innovation that fueled this discovery permeates the EFRCs, which are working on energy topics that span the gamut: biofuels, energy storage, catalysis methods and materials, solar energy conversion and nuclear energy. In each of these fields, one can find scientists and engineers exceeding limits with groundbreaking ideas.

In the rest of the thematic section of the newsletter, we feature the work of several EFRCs that are creating unconventional solutions to our global energy problems. We report on the progress of the Materials Science of Actinides Center in employing actinides for nuclear fuels, a particularly pertinent topic after the tragic earthquake that struck Japan and brought issues related to nuclear power to the forefront. The Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation is developing synthetic catalysts that can outperform traditional enzymatic catalysts. Finally, we highlight the efforts of the Center for Advanced Solar Photophysics in breaking the Shockley-Queisser limit with the novel application of nanostructures to solar cells.

This newsletter highlights the EFRC work funded by DOE which, through five grand challenges, has charged scientists around the country to work on cutting-edge solutions to our energy problems, from improving current technology to breaking conventional limits with transformative new ideas.

More Information

Bermel P, M Ghebrebrhan, W Chan, YX Yeng, M Araghchini, R Hamam, CH Marton, KF Jensen, M Soljačić, JD Joannopoulos, SG Johnson, and I Celanovic. 2010. “Design and global optimization of high-efficiency thermophotovoltaic systems.” Optics Express 18(S3):A314-A334. DOI:10.1364/OE.18.00A314.

About the author(s):

  • Maria Luckyanova is in her third year of graduate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology under Professor Gang Chen in the Nanoengineering Lab, a part of the Mechanical Engineering Department. She studies heat transfer through nanostructures using an optical pump and probe technique. She is a member of the Solid State Solar Thermal Energy Conversion EFRC. In her spare time she loves to conduct imaginary symphony orchestras and ride her bike.

More Information

Bermel P, M Ghebrebrhan, W Chan, YX Yeng, M Araghchini, R Hamam, CH Marton, KF Jensen, M Soljačić, JD Joannopoulos, SG Johnson, and I Celanovic. 2010. “Design and global optimization of high-efficiency thermophotovoltaic systems.” Optics Express 18(S3):A314-A334. DOI:10.1364/OE.18.00A314.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.