MIT Slows Light To Absorb And Generate Energy

Reducing the speed of light using nanotech could lead to new ways to generate electricity, say MIT researchers.

A paper about to be published in the forthcoming issue of the journal Nano Letters describes the creation of a “metamaterial” that promises much more efficient absorption of a wide range of light, which the researchers say could lead to a new generation of highly efficient solar cells and light bulbs as well as devices for generating electricity from heatby actually reducing the speed of light.


image via MIT

The intriguingly named metamaterials are a new class of extremely thin artificial nanotech substances with properties unlike anything found in the natural world. Because they are created from the atom up, they can be perfectly engineered for any purpose by designing functional materials that interact with light in unconventional ways.

MIT Department of Mechanical Engineering lead author Nicholas X. Fang says that his international team was able to slow light to less than one-hundredth of its normal speed in a vacuum, making it much easier to trap inside the material. “When something is going very fast, it’s difficult to catch it,” he says, “so we slow it down so it’s easier to absorb.”

A lot of work has been done in engineering nanomaterials to more fully capture light to improve solar absorption. Some we’ve covered recently include Anorexic Silicon Wafer Could Slash Solar Cost, and Solar ‘Nanotrees’ Key To Clean Hydrogen Fuel? and Nanowire Mesh Could Be Solar Window Coating, but most have been limited to a very narrow range of wavelengths and angles of incidence, says MIT.

Fang’s design uses a pattern of wedge-shaped ridges whose widths are precisely tuned to slow and capture light of a wide range of wavelengths and angles of incidence.

Because their material would be both a very efficient absorber and emitter of photons, it could be used to either capture or emit electromagnetic radiation for very particular wavelengths, such as microwave and terahertz frequencies. It could be be made sensitive to just one specific range of wavelengths.

Susan Kraemer enjoys writing to publicize the many great solutions for climate change that we can find if we just put our minds to it. She covers renewable policy and clean energy for CleanTechnica and GreenProphet and green building at HomeDesignFind. She recently moved home to Waiheke Island where her writing is now powered by the 80% renewable electricity that powers New Zealand.