News Column

RIVERSIDE: Researcher pushes the energy envelope

June 21, 2014

By David Olson, The Press-Enterprise, Riverside, Calif.



June 21--A research team led by a UC Riverside professor won a $12 million federal grant to capture and control energy from spinning electrons.

The award, part of a broader federal effort to create new and more efficient forms of energy, is the largest single federal grant in UC Riverside's history and an illustration of the university's increasing national prominence.

Jing Shi, a professor of physics and astronomy, will work with 13 researchers from UCR and six other universities to investigate how to control and manipulate electrons, the world's smallest particles, to harness more energy and direct how the energy flows. The findings could lead to new devices and materials.

The U.S. Department of Energy, which selected UCR's research project and 31 others from among more than 200 proposals, is distributing a total of $400 million to the award recipients over four years.

Shi said he and others already have done preliminary work on the UCR-led project, called Spins and Heat in Nanoscale Electronic Systems -- SHINES.

Electrons are constantly spinning and moving from one place to another. Some of the energy from that motion already is used to create electricity, Shi said by phone from France, where he is collaborating with other scientists on related research. But, he said, the energy from the electrons' spinning has not been harnessed. The studies will look at ways to create new materials and devices that tap the unused energy, Shi said.

Shi and the other UCR scientists plan to create state-of-the-art synthesized solid materials in the lab that will contain electrons that mostly spin in the same direction. To separate the energy from the spinning, it's necessary that most of the electrons are pointing to the same direction, Shi said.

Another objective is to determine how to better use heat conduction in tiny devices.

For example, computer chips generate heat while a computer is in use. It's the heat that you can feel if you place your hand next to computer vents. The vents release the heat so it doesn't harm the computer.

"Right now, it's wasted," Shi said of the heat.

Shi's team will try to figure out how to take the heat away from the computer chips and transfer it into the electricity grid to create usable energy. That would allow computers to operate more smoothly -- overheated chips can slow computers down -- and make electricity, Shi said.

The same holds true for other electronic devices, such as cell phones that become hot after they've been charging for awhile, said Javier Garay, an associate professor of mechanical engineering and a member of the research team.

Converting that heat into useful energy, and controlling where that energy goes, could help the environment and lead to less pollution, he said.

"Most power for computers or anything comes from relatively dirty sources of energy -- coal or even natural gas," he said. "You're still burning these things. You're putting CO2 into the atmosphere."

Even renewable energy such as wind and solar must be transported. Those delivery systems have environmental consequences, and efficient transfer of that energy reduces those effects, Garay said.

One potential use of the team's research is harnessing more energy from the sun by, for example, making the transference of solar energy to the electrical grid more efficient, UCR spokeswoman Kris Lovekin said.

"It may be to transport the energy in a new way that we don't know about now," Lovekin said. "It might be that the next version of solar panels don't look like solar panels. They might look like something else."

The other UCR researchers involved in the project are Alexander Balandin, Alexander Khitun, Roger Lake and Chun-Ning Lau.

The grant award is another sign of UCR's rising prestige, said Michael Pazzani, the university's vice chancellor for research and economic development.

"We want UC Riverside to be seen as on par with UC San Diego and UCLA, and not viewed as a smaller regional university," Pazzani said. "Part of our plan to become a more eminent research university is to go after more funds, particularly federal funds."

UCR has been working with its faculty to write better, more effective grant proposals, he said.

Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-grant Universities, praised the research being conducted at UCR.

"They're doing some important work in a number of areas," said McPherson, who was on campus May 30 to speak at a symposium on the future of American research universities. "This grant reflects the serious work the university is doing."

The 32 grants announced Wednesday are the second round of funding for what the government calls Energy Frontier Research Centers. Since 2009, $777 million has been spent on the centers.

"The goal of this program is to solve some of the toughest scientific challenges hampering advances in energy technologies that could lead to new energy sources and more efficient uses of energy," the Department of Energy's Office of Science said in a statement.

Contact the writer: 951-368-9462 or dolson@pe.com

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Source: Press-Enterprise (Riverside, CA)