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UC Merced prof major contributor to national research team's work on solar panels

A UC Merced professor is a major contributor to a national research team exploring a novel way to use fractal geometry to improve the production of electricity in solar panels.

Boaz Ilan, associate professor of applied math, is working with researchers from the University of Denver, the University of Oregon and UC Davis under a grant from Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), America’s second-oldest independent foundation, begun in 1912.Their research project, “Fractals as a Promising Geometry for Enhanced Solar Energy Conversion,” is fairly simple to explain, according to Ilan.

Fractals are naturally repeating patterns found widely in nature – from vast stretches of rugged seacoast to the finest veins in the tiniest of plant leaves.

“In this project we hope to use branching fractals – the type found in leaves and trees – to optimize the collection of sunlight, while reducing the cost of doing so,” Ilan said.

The researchers are actually tackling two different projects, he said. The first is to create organic photovoltaic cells that rely on nanoscale fractal pathways for the direct conversion of sunlight to electricity.

The term “organic” refers to carbon-based molecules, which are generally very common, and hence, inexpensive. “Nanoscale” refers to the realm of the very small, a true nanoscale device is generally thought to be around 100 nanometers or less in size. A nanometer is one billionth of a meter, roughly the equivalent of a marble compared to the earth.

The second project, Ilan said, will be an attempt to grow bacteria in fractal patterns to maximize their ability to absorb sunlight, with the aim of producing renewable liquid fuel.

The Scialog Collaborative Award, which enables Ilan and his collaborators to explore this line of research, stems from RCSA’s Scialog initiative. Scialog is short for science dialog. The initiative’s goal is to get top scientists talking to one another in hopes of accelerating breakthrough discoveries in areas of major global concern, said RCSA President and CEO James M. Gentile said in a news release.

This year the foundation made only three Collaborative Awards at its annual meeting, which drew more than 60 top solar researchers to Bisophere2 north of Tucson, Ariz. Scialog encourages early-career scientists to collaborate in the pursuit of high-risk/potentially high-reward research, Gentile said. He explained that means that the experiments the program funds may frequently fail to produce intended results, but when they do succeed, they are likely to represent major advances in our basic understanding or in the effectiveness of our technology.

The winners of this year’s Scialog Collaborative Awards were determined by a panel of solar energy experts led by Nathan Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. Lewis heads a $122 million U.S. Department of Energy program to accelerate the development of renewable liquid fuels produced by photosynthesis, the process by which plants produce energy from sunlight.

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