UC Merced professor gets federal grant for solar panel study

jsmith@mercedsunstar.comFebruary 24, 2012 

UC Merced math professor Boaz Ilan has joined a team of researchers from around the country in an effort to design the first solar panels using a fractal design.

The concept is as obscure and technical as the end results are unclear. In other words, it's complicated and no one is sure it will work.

But that's just how the Research Corporation of Science in Advancement likes it. The independent foundation has awarded Ilan and the other researchers a grant, specifically aimed at funding highly experimental projects in hopes of yielding dramatic results.

"This is fundamental research so you never know what's going to happen," said Ilan, adding that the project could be a "big opportunity scientifically, mathematically and eventually perhaps for renewable energy."

A fractal, according to Dictionary.com, is a term used by mathematicians to describe certain geometrical structures whose shape appears to be the same, regardless of the level of magnification used to view them.

The project started as part of an RCSA program called the Scialogue conference. At one of those events in Arizona, Ilan met his three soon-to-be fellow researchers -- who hail from the University of Denver, the University of Oregon and UC Davis.

"It's a very interesting process there," he said. "It's a small conference, not big. And it's a few days together in the same place discussing things. It was a process of people getting together and talking socially and scientifically that generated this type of spontaneous creation of ideas."

During the conference the group laid the foundation for its project, which aims to use branching fractals in the production of renewable energy.

Improving efficiency

The hope is that solar panels with a surface made with a fractal design will more efficiently absorb sunlight, which could significantly reduce the cost of creating solar power.

The project also has a biofuels component, in which sunlight could be used to grow bacteria in a fractal pattern, which might then be used as a fuel.

"The fractal structure creates a larger surface area, which accelerates the physical transport process of electrons or agents needed to make the device more efficient for converting the sun to electricity," he said.

Ilan's specific role as a mathematician is to compute the viability of such a project and design the size, shape and other more subtle parameters of the fractals to be used in the design. He will then turn that research over to his teammates, who will focus on the implementation.

"My role is to predict the efficiency of these kinds of devices based on mathematical modeling of physical processes on these fractal structures -- their response to light and other things. In other words, 'Is it worth the effort?' " he said.

The size of the two-year grant is undisclosed, but generally RCSA funds such projects at about $100,000. The grant is one of three Collaborative Awards given out each year by the foundation.

Ilan said even if the project doesn't create the next wave of solar technology, investing in renewable energy research is an important and laudable priority.

"I feel there are not enough people in the field doing this, partly because of lack of funding. What I see is that the U.S. is behind other countries -- Europe, China, Japan -- when it come to renewable energy, both on the scientific level and the commercial level."

Reporter Joshua Emerson Smith can be reached at (209) 385-2486 or jsmith@mercedsunstar.com.

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