Quantum Mechanics and Energy Research

Center strengthens engineering education.

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By Marlene Cimons, National Science Foundation

In recent years, the field of quantum mechanics has revolutionized electrical circuits that power computers, cell phones and the many other devices that are an integral part of our daily lives. Today, scientists are using those same forces to harness energy from the sun, with the goal of creating cleaner and more efficient electricity for homes and offices.

“We are going to have to go through a major transformation of our energy system,” says Matthew Fraser, associate professor in Arizona State University’s school of sustainability. “Whether it’s driven by climate change or national security, we’re going to have to change.”

This is one of the main ideas driving the new Energy Research Center for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, or QESST, where researchers are using one of the greatest scientific advances of the 20th Century to develop advanced photovoltaic technology to meet the increasing need for clean and sustainable energy.

The hope is that within a short time the process will supply all new electricity demand in the United States, and become a major source of the nation’s electricity, Fraser says. Ultimately, the technology could begin to replace existing power suppliers, an environmentally friendly approach that could reduce the burning of fossil fuels, a major contributor to climate change.

“Right now we’re not talking about completely pulling people off the grid, but we are talking about building photovoltaics as a major supplier for energy generation,” he says.

Moreover, it likely will prove especially important for remote areas without electricity, for example, some Native American reservations, and including globally, he says. Worldwide, an estimated two billion people do not have access to electricity, Fraser says.

“We would like to see it in places where they need electricity for cell phones, for pumping water, for lighting at night, among other things, “he says.

Quantum mechanics involves seizing individual photons and converting them to electrons--in this case, taking photons from solar energy--in order to make electricity.  “We use the same semi-conducting materials that are used in computer chips to capture photons and convert them into electricity,” says Fraser, the center’s sustainability director. “This is the fundamental basis for all photovoltaic systems.”

Photovoltaics already is a growing industry, expanding roughly 30-40 percent annually for the last decade, according to Fraser. “It’s had incredible growth,” he says, adding that center scientists hope to bring cutting edge research together with industry resources to further support the burgeoning field, and “educate a pipeline of scientists and engineers trained in photovoltaics, so we can continue this growth rate.”

Until now, “energy has always been made primarily through a mechanical force,” he adds.  “We’re talking about a complete revolution from mechanical sources and forces to make electricity through a quantum based system. This will be a fundamental change in energy systems. We are completely removing the mechanical systems from it.”

The center is funded jointly by the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy with $18.5 million during the center’s first five years.  It is among NSF’s Engineering Research Centers, which focus on areas of research considered vital to national interests in science and engineering innovation, technological advancement, economic expansion and education of future innovation leaders.

As part of this, center officials want to strengthen engineering education and expand the research and education community by developing new research opportunities for undergraduates and teachers, as well as graduate students. The center also will help design programs to encourage middle and high school students to study engineering and science, and allow them to participate in engineering research projects.

“We want to ensure a future workforce in this industry through online training programs and educational modules that can be used beyond their active engagement in the center’s activities,” Fraser says.