Q&A: Steven Novack

The Idaho National Laboratory researcher prophesies a future in which solar antennae are as easy to use as Saran Wrap—and almost as cheap.

Mother Jones: Can you tell me how you got involved with nano-antenna technology and what your history with it was?

Steven Novack: We had done a project with work on frequency-selected surfaces. And I was asked in sort of the middle of the project to come help manage that particular project. And I believe that was about three or three and a half years ago.

MJ: Is it correct to describe it as a solar antenna that tunes in solar radiation the same way that an automobile gets radio signals?

SN: You know, it really is very similar, although the tuning portion—we're not there yet. We're not able to tune these things, although we can make antennae for particular bandwidths.

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MJ: Could you explain that a little more to me? What would tuning even constitute in this sense—in the solar antenna sense?

SN: Well, the electromagnetic spectrum is fairly large. Of course we have the solar radiation, which we know a lot about in the visible range. And we know a little bit in the ultraviolet, and on the other side, a fair amount in the infrared range. But typically the man-made portion of that is usually at a much longer wavelength or lower frequency.

MJ: Meaning the electricity that we pay for, that we use to power our houses?

SN: No, more along the lines of what you were talking about in terms of your radio. So we have radio frequencies and microwaves that we use, for telecommunication and for other particular types of uses—obviously, the microwave oven and those types of things. So there's a wide range of electromagnetic spectrum that we can tap off. And antennae really work the same way they do in any sort of device. The radio, of course, allows you to select a frequency and then tunes to that frequency. Basically all you're doing is changing the resonance of a particular circuit that has an antenna in it. And when it resonates, it's really absorbing that electromagnetic frequency. And we can do the same with these antennae.

MJ: Can you explain how you do that with these antennae?

SN: We developed a resonant circuit. The challenge for us in developing these particular circuits were that we wanted to capture light that was at a frequency and a very small wavelength in—we were going to start off for us in the near, the mid-infrared region. And I don't know how much you want to know about actual wavelengths but the wavelength we actually consider to be heat—that we sense as heat—is typically between the 8 and 12 micron region. And so we needed to make antennae about a quarter of that size to get resonance.

MJ: So the idea is that you can then capture solar energy that's around us even when the sun's not out—when you can't perceive it?

SN: Yeah, the general idea is that typical solar cells really work off more of a chemical process, and these work at a very different process. And that process gives us flexibility to capture a much wider range of solar energy. So the opportunities there are enormous. And that's probably a good point to really get across, that the challenge with solar cells—traditional solar cells—has been efficiency. And efficiency is the result of the process that goes on inside the solar cells.

MJ: How much more efficient is this technology than traditional solar power technology?

SN: Well, traditional solar cells get between 12 and 20 percent efficient. Of the energy that they're attempting to collect in the wavelength, they get 12 to 20 percent of that light energy converted to electrical energy. And solar cells collect direct current.

MJ: And the nano-antenna technology that you're working on, how much more efficient is that?

SN: The nano-antenna, and antennae themselves, are very good at obviously transmitting and receiving electromagnetic technology. So we have prototypes out on silicone antennae of these sizes that capture 80 percent. Now, we have to make a very clear distinction here—although we're capturing that much energy, we still have a challenge in getting that energy so we can use it.

MJ: Basically the struggle you're faced with now is how to make it widely available without losing efficiency?

SN: Well yes, but we also have to come up with some new methods and some new designs to be able to actually get the electronic circuitry that will work at those high frequencies. Right now there are probably some working prototypes and designs that you can buy with 3 trillion Hz. We really need to get up to 30. And we want to do that obviously efficiently, so we're going to have to do some research in that area to get these things into a market that people are going to want to purchase.

Really, there are two challenges to this technology. The first challenge is being able to make and go from this small prototype that we've developed into a large, inexpensive, manufacturable product on flexible substraits, like plastics. And we've done a fairly good job on that. And that's why we've gotten the awards and why people are excited about this process, 'cause we've solved one of the problems. The second problem is the electronic circuitry. And we most likely will have to partner with somebody who's working in that area. But there are a lot of people working in this area. If we want to go to optical computing, for example, which is computers that operate on light versus electrons electricity, we're going to need to solve this problem.

MJ: How would this actually look? If it were widely available, would it be the sort of thing where you had your own nano-antennae, or where there was one central one for the city?

SN: I envision that because it's going to be so cheap and so inexpensive, we're going to print these things on Saran Wrap types of materials...

MJ: Like Bubble Wrap, sort of?

SN: Kind of like that. If you think about applications, you're going to have a much more distributed network in terms of power and electricity. You're going to not have to plug everything in to the wall and convert it to DC. We're going to be able to have skins for our cars, for our clothing, for our electronic devices, small electronic devices. But even more importantly a lot of this is going to be focused on, at least initially, on some of the waste residual heat that we have in the industrial process. That's a radiative electromagnetic heat that we can then take, resonate these antennae, and then gather electricity off of.

MJ: What are the next steps in this process?

SN: Next steps are really that partnering step that I talked to you about. We want to find people who are at universities or other laboratories or industry that are working in a similar area that we can both benefit from developing that electronic circuitry, and then put our expertise to work along with our partners at the University of Missouri and be able to put that into our current manufacturing prototypes and designs.

MJ: What's the potential amount in terms of the cost of energy that people could save?

SN: Well, I looked up online yesterday to see what the prices of solar cells are, and they're all different. It's about $100 for a panel that's a one-foot-by-two-foot panel. We should be able to get more energy from our stuff over a period of time, based on our assumptions, costing about $10. Does that sort of give you an idea?

MJ: Yes. But let's say you go out and buy this theoretical product that costs about $10, and then you own the product and then you wouldn't pay anything beyond that, right?

SN: That's correct, and there are some real advantages to structures that have these antennae. Solar panels you typically have to have some sort of mechanical device that makes it so the panels move to track the sun. Now antennae have a radio field, and so we've measured the radio field and we're supposed to be able to get 30 degrees to either side without any changes to our collection capability. So you have a 60 degree angle that you already have that you don't have to move the antennae.

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