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Multidisciplinary Initiative Investigates Light as an Energy Source

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SANTA BARBARA, Calif., May 21, 2018 — An interdisciplinary group of scientists is embarking on a five-year project to explore the use of photoswitches to develop a next generation of devices that operate mechanically upon exposure to light. The goal of the $7.5M project, called the Multidisciplinary Research Initiative (MURI), is to develop photomechanical materials that will provide a portable, abundant energy source. Such technology could help eliminate the costs associated with the manufacture of onboard energy systems and storage.

The MURI team includes researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB); Princeton University; University of California, Riverside; Stanford University; Kent State University; and the California Institute of Technology. The project is still in the design stage, said researchers.

Illustration of a photoswitch, for the MURI project. UCSB.
Depiction of photoswitch. Courtesy of UCSB.

“Each person on the team has a different piece of the road map," said UCSB professor Javier Read de Alaniz. “There are those who have been studying photoswitches on the molecular scale, people who’ve been studying materials that can change shape on the mesoscale, and people who work on quantum mechanical modeling. Together this team is bringing it all together to design and develop the next generation of photomechanical materials.”

He predicts that some of the early outcomes of the U.S. Navy-sponsored MURI project could include lenses that change or move in response to light; elements that change the drag of an object, allowing one to change the direction of an oceangoing vessel by exposing parts of it to light; or soft robotics, in which light would be used to change the shape of an automaton as needed.

Javier Read de Alaniz, UCSB professor of chemistry. Courtesy of Sonia Fernandez.
avier Read de Alaniz, UCSB professor of chemistry. Courtesy of Sonia Fernandez.

“The real challenge is how do we actually make something that can compete with the machines that we have today,” Read de Alaniz said.

“The way that we transport energy today requires you to have a physical contact with the device, such as an electrical cable, to transfer your energy to mechanical work," he said. "But if you could envision, for example, the use of lasers to transport light from point A through free space to point B, and upon hitting point B cause the propagating light (to change) into mechanical work, all of a sudden you can transport work without having a physical device carrying the energy.”
May 2018
A sub-field of photonics that pertains to an electronic device that responds to optical power, emits or modifies optical radiation, or utilizes optical radiation for its internal operation. Any device that functions as an electrical-to-optical or optical-to-electrical transducer. Electro-optic often is used erroneously as a synonym.
A solid-state device that acts as a high-speed power switch, and that is activated by incident radiation.
Research & TechnologyeducationAmericaslaserslight sourcesmaterialsopticsoptoelectronicslensesfreeform opticsindustrialphotoswitchphotomechanical materials

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