Advancing Basic Science for Humanity
University of California, Berkeley
Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute
From human cells to plant leaves, nature uses sophisticated nanoscale structures to control and convert energy, often with remarkable efficiency. The Kavli Energy NanoSciences Institute (Kavli ENSI) at the University of California, Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory – leaders in energy research and the measurement and manipulation of matter at the nanoscale –is dedicated to studying how nature manages energy at the nanoscale and to developing entirely new ways to capture, store, and harness energy for the world’s growing population.
The Kavli ENSI is led by Paul Alivisatos, Vice Chancellor for Research at UC Berkeley and former director of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. The co-directors are Omar Yaghi and Peidong Yang, professors of chemistry at Berkeley. Institute members include theorists, leaders in characterizing nanostructures, experts at synthesizing materials, and researchers who can combine nanostructures into novel energy devices. It also brings together researchers who have worked independently on many of the same energy problems. Strongly cross-disciplinary, scientific perspectives span the fields of physics, biology, chemistry, and engineering.
The group's main research themes include:
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- Nanoscale motors. Our bodies are filled with nanomachines that do everything from contract muscles to synthesize and fold proteins into useful shapes. These nanomotors differ greatly from conventional motors, where heat might push a piston as it flows from hot to cold zones. Nanomachines, however, operate within a narrow temperature range and must generate power from energy fluctuations inherent at the nanoscale. The Kavli ENSI wants to discover how nanomotors take advantage of these fluctuations to achieve such high thermal efficiencies.
- Nanoscale control of energy flow. Photosynthesis converts light into easily retrievable energy stored in chemical bonds. New research shows that the process is even more sophisticated than imagined. For example, recent findings demonstrate that plants take advantage of the quantum nature of light (as particle and wave) for longer than ever thought possible, enabling unusual types of photosynthetic functions. The Kavli ENSI seeks to understand the role of quantum mechanics in photosynthesis to develop more efficient ways to harvest light as energy and fuel.
- Thermal energy and circuitry. At the nanoscale, mechanical vibrations produce quantum particles called phonons, a primary source of heat. Phonons have received far less attention than photons or electrons, yet we may be able to control them with devices that function like transistors, rectifiers and wires. The Kavli ENSI envisions building new thermal circuits from designer nanostructures to transmit, store, control and convert thermal energy.
- Chemical transformations and catalysis. The electrical grid must use whatever electricity solar photovoltaic cells produce because it has no practical way to store it. Nature, on the other hand, stores energy from photosynthesis in rich, dense chemical bonds that it can use as fuel anytime. It makes these high-energy molecules using chemically and structurally complex catalysts, with internal chambers that lock molecules into place during synthesis. A major goal of Kavli ENSI is to learn to create complex networks of artificial catalysts, and use them to produce fuel and other complex molecules.
- Artificial energy conversion and circuits. Ultimately, Kavli ENSI plans to harness the principles it discovers to create energy circuits with tailored nanoscale components. A potential circuit might, for example, start with nanoscale structure that absorbs light, linked to an element that strips a photon's charge and directs it into a single-molecule catalyst that stores the charge, and use it to forge chemical bonds through processes that occur throughout the entire molecular energy circuit.
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