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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Fractals, nature’s best-kept secret, could help solve energy crisis

Frank Osterloh, a UC Davis chemistry professor, is a major contributor of a national research team trying to find a more efficient and economical way to use solar energy. The team was recently awarded a national grant of $100,000 from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA).

“I have been working on solar energy conversion for about six years now and it is one of the most important things one can work on as a scientist today. We need to find new energy carriers to power our society,” Osterloh said.

Currently, solar energy devices that are able to convert sunlight into a usable energy source, such as electricity, are much more costly than the traditional methods of burning coal or natural gas.

“Basically, at the present time, it is still more costly to use solar energy than fossil fuels,” said Richard Wiener, the program director at RCSA.

But in the next couple of years, scientists hope to reach a point where solar energy is at equal cost or, ideally, less expensive than fossil fuels so that it becomes plausible for solar energy to replace fossil fuels.

Wiener said the approach that Osterloh and his colleagues are taking to solve this problem is unique and innovative.

“[They] plan to come up with new geometry on the very small, nano-scale,” Wiener said.

The idea is to use fractal geometry to enhance solar energy conversion. Fractals are naturally repeating geometric patterns that can be split up into parts, with each part a smaller-sized copy of the whole. Fractals occur widely in nature, from features as large as seacoast lines, clouds and mountains to things as small as the veins that line the leaves of most plants.

Osterloh’s project plans to use branching fractals, found in leaves and trees, to both optimize the collection of sunlight and simultaneously reduce the cost of doing so.

Specifically, the branching pattern enhances the collection of sunlight. Osterloh and his team are trying to use this same branching scheme that nature has only on a very small scale in order to make the solar cells more efficient at collecting sunlight, and more economical in price.

As Osterloh explained, the tree has a special geometry because it needs to bring together sunlight from the sky and nutrients from the soil to produce energy the tree can use.  The branched structure is optimized for this purpose, and thus should work within a photovoltaic cell (solar cell) as well, creating increased electrical power.

“This approach seems like a very novel and promising method and we really want to give them a chance to try,” Wiener said.

Osterloh and his team of researchers includes two physicists from the University of Denver and the University of Oregon, as well as a mathematician from UC Merced. Just as their approach to solar energy conversion is novel, so is the method RCSA employed to give out these grants.

The research team met at a conference in Arizona, held by RCSA, this past year. About 50 scientists from different science fields, most of whom did not know each other prior to the event, attended the conference. They were first given the chance to talk about solar energy conversion. Then, they formed teams based on whom they wanted to work with and came up with research proposals at the conference. The best proposals were awarded grant money.

“This is a very unique and unusual process and we are experimenting with how effective this is going to be,” Wiener said.

Osterloh agreed that in science, it is very important to have scientists from different specialties work together on a project such as this one.

“Different scientists bring unique areas of expertise and viewpoints to the table. Sometimes you need different perspectives in order to describe and understand a concept,” Osterloh said.

Wiener said that Osterloh, who has two grants with RCSA, has been particularly valuable at these conferences.

“In speaking with other scientists [at these conferences], he has shown himself to be particularly creative and engaging and very supportive of this experiment on how to make new collaboration successful,” Wiener said.

CLAIRE MALDARELLI can be reached at science@theaggie.org.

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