News Feature | November 17, 2021

Bright Ideas — Solar Radiation Creates Sustainable Aircraft Fuel, Webb Telescope Camera Ready For Launch

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By Abby Proch, Electronics Editor

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Floating solar panels the size of 70 soccer fields are now bobbing along and producing power from the Lam Dom Noi River in Thailand. According to a report by Inceptive Mind, the panels and nearby hydropower Sirindhorn Dam are expected to provide up to 45 MW of power to the national grid. But, the $34 million investment isn’t just a power producer, it will also reduce water evaporation by as much as 460,000 cubic meters per year and reduce greenhouse gas emissions by about 47,000 tons per year — and all without interfering with the underwater environment below.

In other solar energy news, scientists have delivered a proof-of-concept design whereby sunlight and ambient air are refined into sustainable aircraft fuel. According to an article published by Optica, scientists have developed a prototype solar refinery that collects air and extracts from it carbon dioxide and water. Then, a redox unit uses solar radiation to break the carbon dioxide and water molecules into carbon monoxide and hydrogen, called syngas. Syngas is then converted into liquid hydrocarbons or methanol. One 7-hour cycle produces 3.2cl of methanol. To improve efficiency — currently at 0.8% — and cut costs, the team of scientists is looking for a commercial-scale production unit, much in the way solar power evolved from in lab to in situ success.  

Speaking of operating in a real world environment, in a little over a month, the James Webb Space Telescope (onboard the Ariane 5 rocket) will launch and travel nearly 1 million miles where it will capture images and information about some of the first galaxies and stars to ever form in our universe.  Just this past week, scientists completed the telescope’s near-infrared spectrograph and camera (NIRSpec and NIRCam, respectively), according to a NASA blog post.

NIRCam, however, won’t start snapping right away. According to Marcia Rieke, principal investigator for NIRCam, the instrument will need to cool for 35 days before it can be turned on. Then, it will need to produce its “first focused star data,” which essentially means the camera will acclimate to its surroundings before producing scientifically valuably data. For its part, the NIRSpec — featuring an optical bench and mirrors made from silicon carbide — is a rugged, space-ready tool capable of breaking down IR light from NIRCam into spectra that can be analyzed so closely as to indicate galaxies’ distances, star makeup, elemental components, and more. The launch is scheduled on Dec. 18 in New Guinea and the earliest data is expected in summer 2022.

Webb’s ascent into space couldn’t come at a better time. Last week, NASA recorded the Hubble telescope’s second failure this year. Scientists switched the 19-year-old telescope into safe mode from Oct. 23 until Nov. 7 after the instrument failed to receive multiple messages from its control unit. The Webb telescope, which builds upon findings produced by Hubble, will see much more closely and further back in time than its predecessor. Hubble’s greatest contributions include aging the universe and finding small moons around Pluto. Despite recent breakdowns, Hubble is outliving its initial five-year lifespan.

In research discoveries, scientists have identified a new type of photonic crystal — on the back of a longhorn beetle. The vibrant green insect bare scales in a crystalline structure that’s not been seen before.  These examples were not uniform like other photonic crystals but rather appear with an unbalanced surface, dual subspaces, and evidence that they initially formed as one and then split into twins, according to Phys.org. Researchers say the discovery means there is still more to be learned about the nature of photonic crystals within nature.

Finally, in precision optics, a University of Rochester PhD student used an integrated photonic chip to yield a more powerful and precise interferometer. Doctoral student Meiting Song amplified interferometric signals on a 2x2 mm chip without any increase in noise, according to a press release from Rochester University, where Song attends and is part of the Cardenas Lab.

Her approach involves the theory of weak value amplification with waveguides. And, according to the report, her setup is unconventional. Her device employs “a waveguide engineered to propagate the wavefront of an optical field through the chip,” not one with a set of tilted mirrors. With this approach, Song can improve the noise-to-signal ratio of a traditional interferometer without having to increase laser power, as usually prescribed. Song’s future work will involve using the device for coherent communications and other quantum applications.

Editor's note: In summary of the story from Optica and in the headline, "solar power" was updated to "solar energy" and "solar radiation," respectively, to more accurately capture the nuance of the technology.