Next-gen devices could operate not on electricity or batteries but on LIGHT
07/17/2018 / By Edsel Cook / Comments
Next-gen devices could operate not on electricity or batteries but on LIGHT

A future generation of electronic devices could do away with the need for batteries or the local power grid by drawing energy from light. And by “light,” the joint research group working on these devices means all forms of light, not just sunlight, a Nano Werk article states.

Such devices can dispense with the need for internal energy and storage systems. They would be assured that their power source is abundant and easily accessed.

Javier Read de Alaniz is one of the researchers participating in the “Photomechanical materials systems: from molecules to devices” project. A chemistry professor from UC Santa Barbara, he serves as the co-principal investigator of the long-term effort to develop light-powered equipment.

“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 explains. “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 into mechanical work, all of a sudden you can transport work without having a physical device carrying the energy.”

Photoswitch molecules change their properties when hit by light

This theoretical technology relies on photoswitches, a new class of molecules that can change their properties when they are exposed to light. A certain type of photoswitch is used in the lenses of light-adaptive eyeglasses that turn darker or lighter depending on the amount of UV light in the environment. (Related: FDA approves first-ever light-adaptive contact lenses.)


Whereas these photochromic molecules change their optical properties, other photoswitches can switch from water-repellent to water-attracting and back in the presence of light.

Read de Alaniz’s research group has their collective eyes on molecules that change their shapes in the presence of light. These particular molecules are normally flat. When light shines on them, they curl up into a ball.

The challenge is to get an entire swathe of such molecules to act in tandem. If a whole photomechanical polymer can perform that action, then it might be able to derive power from light and accomplish certain functions.

This is just one of the objectives of the Multidisciplinary Research Initiative (MURI) project that involves Read de Alaniz and his counterparts from Princeton, Stanford, UC Riverside, Kent State University, and CalTech. The project is sponsored by the U.S. Navy and will run for five years on $7.5 million of funding.

Some of the researchers have been studying the molecules of photoswitches. Others are investigating the shape-changing materials on the intermediate scale. Yet another group is responsible for using quantum mechanics to model the properties of the materials.

Shape-shifting optical lenses, drag-altering materials, and photomechanical soft robots

Read de Alaniz believes the long-term project will deliver interesting and useful developments 15 years down the line. For example, the field of optics could benefit from shape-shifting lenses that can change their shape or even move in the presence of light.

Another idea involves elements that alter the drag of a waterborne object. By altering the force that resists the movement of the object through water, the boat can be steered by shining light on certain parts of the hull instead of relying on a traditional rudder.

Yet another possible use involves soft robotics. A soft robot could be made out of photomechanical materials that change their shape to swim through water or perform another function. All of these processes and technologies would be powered by light.

To learn more about next-generation devices that could change the way we live, head on over to today.

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