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Navajo Summit Looks at History and Future of Tribe’s Relationship With Energy

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Thursday, June 13, 2024

The decline of coal, oil’s booms and busts, the Biden Administration’s incentives for renewable energy and ongoing environmental justice concerns on Diné lands all came up during the conference.By Noel Lyn SmithALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico—The Navajo Nation’s transition from producing fossil fuels to generating renewable energy is going through some growing pains.

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico—The Navajo Nation’s transition from producing fossil fuels to generating renewable energy is going through some growing pains. Tribal and chapter government officials, energy companies, nonprofit organizations and others attended a three-day conference last week to discuss the tribe’s history with energy production, and the challenges of redefining that relationship, including how to […]

The decline of coal, oil’s booms and busts, the Biden Administration’s incentives for renewable energy and ongoing environmental justice concerns on Diné lands all came up during the conference.

By Noel Lyn Smith

ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico—The Navajo Nation’s transition from producing fossil fuels to generating renewable energy is going through some growing pains.

Read the full story here.
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Offshore windfarm zone off Illawarra coast given green light in bid to ‘power Australia’s clean energy future’

Zone will be 20km off the coast and exclude areas significant for little penguin and for southern right whale migrationThe federal government has given the green light to an offshore windfarm zone south of Sydney, making it Australia’s fourth such zone to be declared.Announcing the project in the Illawarra on Saturday, the climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, said the move would bring thousands of new jobs and help “power Australia’s clean energy future”. Continue reading...

The federal government has given the green light to an offshore windfarm zone south of Sydney, making it Australia’s fourth such zone to be declared.Announcing the project in the Illawarra on Saturday, the climate change and energy minister, Chris Bowen, said the move would bring thousands of new jobs and help “power Australia’s clean energy future”.The zone will be 20km from the coast and exclude areas significant for the little penguin and for southern right whale migration.It will cover an offshore area of 1,022 sq km – a one-third reduction from the original proposal – and has the potential to generate 2.9GW, or enough power for 1.8m homes.“The Illawarra has been an engine room of the Australian economy for generations, and now it’s ready to power Australia’s clean energy future,” Bowen said.“Declaring this offshore wind zone brings the Illawarra a step closer to becoming a major provider of the building blocks of the net zero transformation – green power, green hydrogen and green steel – along with thousands of new jobs.”Since last year, the proposal for a windfarm zone in the Illawarra and the declaration of a zone in New South Wales’s Hunter region has drawn fierce opposition, with some online groups sharing factually incorrect information about the windfarms.The Coalition has fanned opposition to the project, despite introducing legislation for the development of an offshore wind industry while in government.The federal Labor MP for Whitlam, Stephen Jones, said the declaration showed the government’s commitment to supporting local jobs and delivering cheaper and more reliable energy for Illawarra businesses and households.“We want Australia to be a global renewable energy superpower and regions such as the Illawarra have an important role to play in our nation’s energy transformation,” he said.Why Dutton is restoking the climate wars: politics with Amy Remeikis - videoThe zone does not guarantee an offshore windfarm will go ahead, but is the first of five regulatory stages. The stages will include project-specific feasibility and commercial licences and an environmental assessment under national conservation laws.If an offshore windfarm does go ahead, the turbines could be up to 268 metres high. The government has said the size, arrangement and number of turbines will be determined after the prospective developer undertakes studies.The government views creating an offshore windfarm industry in Australia as key to helping the country replace ageing coal-fired power plants, and reaching its plan for the energy grid to be made up of 82% of renewable energy by the end of the decade.The federal Labor MP for Cunningham, Alison Byrnes, said she was pleased the zone had been amended to start further from the coast and exclude significant environmental areas.“[It’s a] sensible compromise that reflects the majority of community opinion while helping to achieve our shared goals of more renewable energy, more jobs and fewer emissions,” she said.skip past newsletter promotionSign up to Afternoon UpdateOur Australian afternoon update breaks down the key stories of the day, telling you what’s happening and why it mattersPrivacy Notice: Newsletters may contain info about charities, online ads, and content funded by outside parties. For more information see our Privacy Policy. We use Google reCaptcha to protect our website and the Google Privacy Policy and Terms of Service apply.after newsletter promotion“There is now an extensive process of studies and approvals that will be required but this is a positive step for a region that wants to secure its industrial future and power it using clean energy.”Many welcomed the development on Saturday.The Climate Council policy and advocacy head, Jennifer Rayner, said the Illawarra would continue to thrive for generations with affordable and clean energy being produced in the region.“Offshore wind will be an important part of Australia’s clean energy grid because it provides reliable, steady renewable energy right around the clock,” Rayner said.“This is one of the important ways we’ll power Australia as our ageing and unreliable coal-fired generators close.“The federal and state governments need to work together to rapidly break through roadblocks that are holding back the delivery of onshore wind projects already supported by communities and investors.”The University of Wollongong Energy Futures Network director, Ty Christopher, hailed the offshore wind project as a positive step for the region.“By working together as a community, sharing our concerns for the environment to codesign a clean energy future for the region, we have the ability to deliver positive outcomes for our oceans, our communities and our local economy,” he said.– with Australian Associated Press

A plan to mine lithium could eradicate a Nevada flower. Is extinction just the cost of green energy?

Botanists express alarm that a rare plant, the Tiehm's buckwheat, won't survive where a lithium mine is planned

Botanist Jerry Tiehm, the curator of herbarium at the University of Nevada Reno, discovered the plant that now bears his name more than 40 years ago. It was early in his career, and Tiehm was driving through a remote central Nevada canyon while collecting samples to study. He was unaware at the time that it was an unknown species until a different expert informed him that the yellow, white and green plant was something altogether new. Indigenous to a tiny patch of land no larger than 10 acres in area, the new plant was named Tiehm's buckwheat after its discoverer. "The pit walls will eventually subside and as the result in some number of years after the pit is built, the buckwheat will end up falling into the pit." More than four decades later, and Tiehm's buckwheat is at the center of a historic lawsuit with millions of dollars at stake. Amidst of all of this furious debate, Tiehm is a mere bystander. "I am not involved with this controversy," Jerry Tiehm said. "I simply discovered the plant and it was named in my honor." The controversy involves lithium, a key component of the batteries in electric cars and our always-online gadgets. As climate change continues to worsen because of humans burning fossil fuels, environmentalists of all stripes are turning to electric vehicles as a potential way to reduce the release of carbon dioxide. Yet the tiny town of Tonopah contains the only legal lithium mine in the United States, meaning that Americans who wish to capitalize on this potential green technology have only one place where they can do so. President Biden accelerated the lithium boom when he signed the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, since one provision of the bill requires that all batteries for any new electric vehicles be sourced in either the United States or one of its pre-selected allies to qualify for a tax credit. The Department of Energy has even awarded billions of dollars in grants to upstart lithium companies. Yet not everyone is happy about the prospect of resource-intensive lithium mining occurring in the Tiehm's buckwheat's neighborhood. Last week the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officially closed public comments on a new environmental impact survey for the proposed Rhyolite Ridge Lithium-Boron mine after thousands of people commented. In addition to ordinary citizens, experts like Claremont Graduate University research assistant professor of botany Naomi Fraga describe potential lithium mines in dire language. "We know that the proposed mine would destroy 22% of the habitat deemed essential for the species survival," Fraga said. "Further the line will create a large open pit that is 200 acres large and 960 feet deep. This pit is just feet from buckwheat plants." Fraga added that the Australia-based mining company Ioneer says the mine would be 44 feet away from the plants but that she believes based on the spatial files it would only be roughly 15 feet away. "The pit walls will eventually subside and as a result, in some number of years after the pit is built the buckwheat will end up falling into the pit," said Fraga. "Further the mine will create the conditions for non-native plant species to invade the habitat and it will create dust that will impact the plant." Patrick Donnelly is the Great Basin director at the Center for Biological Diversity. The non-profit conservationist group has worked for over five years to protect the Tiehm's buckwheat from open pit mines like the lithium facility proposed by Ioneer. If constructed, the open pit would require thousands of acres for rock dumps, tailings piles, a tailings dam and a sulfuric acid processing plant. "Tiehm's buckwheat lives on just 10 acres and would be surrounded by this devastating development," said Donnelly. Given that the Tiehm's buckwheat was listed as protected under the Endangered Species Act, more than 100 scientists felt confident submitting a public letter to the BLM urging them to honor the plant's special status by stopping the mine. "The mine plan would directly destroy 22% of the plant's protected critical habitat, whole irreparably degrading the other 78% with massive amounts of dust, acid mist and other pollution, pollinator disruption, and the high likelihood of eventual pit wall collapse leading to the total destruction of the plant," Donnelly said. Want more health and science stories in your inbox? Subscribe to Salon's weekly newsletter Lab Notes. "Ioneer is confident in our ability to quadruple the nation’s supply of lithium while protecting Tiehm’s buckwheat." Chad Yeftich, Ioneer's vice president of corporate development and external affairs, emphatically disagrees with these assessments. "Ioneer is confident in our ability to quadruple the nation’s supply of lithium while protecting Tiehm’s buckwheat," said Yeftich. He pointed out that in 2022 the company submitted a revised plan to the BLM with the purpose of eliminating direct impacts and minimizing indirect impacts to the rare plant from the mine. The BLM released a draft Environmental Impact Statement in April to reflect Ioneer's proposed changes, including those for protecting the buckwheat. "Rhyolite Ridge is a better project having gone through the federal permitting process and engaging with the community, and we are pleased the U.S. government recognizes that yearslong work and has advanced our project past the public comment period, which closed on June 3," said Yeftich. He added that the company is voluntarily dedicating time and resources "to the successful propagation and growth of Tiehm's buckwheat at Rhyolite Ridge. We have taken significant voluntary measures to ensure the plant and its habitat are protected, including investing $2.5 million in conservation efforts and committing an additional $1 million annually for its ongoing protection." Additionally, Ioneer has performed research at their company's Tiehm’s Buckwheat Conservation Center. The researchers claim to have learned that the plant can grow in many types of soil, including some potting mixes available at hardware stores. While conducting this research, they created a seed bank has collected 8,000 seeds, with their greenhouse yielding another 3,000 seeds. "After another successful harvest of seeds from site – regulated by a BLM permit – we hope to grow even more," said Yeftich. "Working with U.S. Fish and Wildlife, we will plant buckwheat plants grown from seedlings at our greenhouse at Rhyolite Ridge." Perhaps most notably, Ioneer characterized their mining expedition as a blow for planet Earth, not against it. Pointing to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's report that climate change is the greatest threat to biodiversity in the world, Yeftich said that "the rapid transition from fossil fuels cannot happen without access to critical minerals like lithium needed to decarbonize the transportation sector. When operational, Rhyolite Ridge will quadruple our nation’s lithium supply, creating a unique and important source to support domestic battery supply chains." By contrast, Fraga is skeptical that a lithium mine which could endanger Tiehm's buckwheat is necessary to fight climate change. "Not all places containing [lithium] should be subject to mining, as they may contain features that are important to culture, biodiversity and the environment overall," Fraga said. "Rhyolite Ridge is one such place as it contains all of these things, including a spring that is sacred to tribal communities." Although Fraga is concerned about both climate change and the biodiversity crisis, she draws a line at this plant in particular. "Tiehm's buckwheat represents a unique form of life on this planet," Fraga continued. "I value all life, including Tiehm's buckwheat. I feel strongly that that we need to transition away from fossil fuels, but it should not come at the cost of species extinction." Donnelly said that the proposed mine is more than just environmentally dangerous; he also says that it is illegal. "The proposed Rhyolite Ridge Mine clearly violates the Endangered Species Act," Donnelly explained. "The Act is the most successful conservation law in the world at preventing extinction, and we don't aim to see it undermined by a shady Australian mining company looking to turn a quick buck by driving species extinct. We will be fighting this mine in court, to halt the extinction crisis, save Tiehm's buckwheat, and defend the integrity of the Endangered Species Act." He added, "Lithium is part of our clean energy transition but it can't come at the cost of extinction. There are over 99 proposed lithium projects in Nevada, many of which do not have endangered species present. There's no legitimate reason to develop this disaster of a mine, and we aim to stop it." Read more about climate change and mining

Coming soon to a lake near you: Floating solar panels

New research finds that "floatovoltaics" could generate a substantial amount of energy worldwide.

A reservoir is many things: a source of drinking water, a playground for swimmers, a refuge for migrating birds. But if you ask solar-power enthusiasts, a reservoir is also not realizing its full potential. That open water could be covered with buoyant panels, a burgeoning technology known as floating photovoltaics, aka “floatovoltaics.” They could simultaneously gather energy from the sun and shade the water, reducing evaporation — an especially welcome bonus where droughts are getting worse.  Now, scientists have crunched the numbers and found that if humans deployed floatovoltaics in a fraction of lakes and reservoirs around the world — covering just 10 percent of the surface area of each — the systems could collectively generate four times the amount of power the United Kingdom uses in a year. The effectiveness of so-called FPVs would vary from country to country, but their research found that some could theoretically supply all their electricity this way, including Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Papua New Guinea.  “The countries around the world that we saw gain the most from these FPVs were these low-latitude, tropical countries that did not have a high energy demand in the first place,” said Iestyn Woolway, an Earth system scientist at Bangor University and lead author of a new paper describing the findings in the journal Nature Water. “It meant that if only a small percentage of their lakes — this 10 percent — was covered by FPVs, it could be enough to fuel the energy demand of the entire country.” For developing countries, floatovoltaics could be especially powerful as a means of generating clean electricity. Instead of building out more planet-warming infrastructure running on fossil fuels, like gas-fired power plants, fledgling economies could run panels on land and water, in addition to other renewables like wind and hydropower. With solar power comes autonomy: Utilities don’t have to rely on shipments of fossil fuels, but can tap into the abundant power of the sun. Floatovoltaic solar panels — which have been proliferating globally, from California to France to Taiwan — are the same ones found on a rooftop. “It’s the same electrical system, same panels, same inverters,” said Chris Bartle, director of sales and marketing at Ciel and Terre USA, which is deploying floatovoltaic systems. “We’re just providing a structure that floats to mount that electrical system.” The solar rafts are anchored either to the bottom of the water body or to the shore, or both, to keep them from wandering. In many ways, solar panels and bodies of water can benefit one another. Photovoltaics get less efficient the hotter they get, so having them floating on a lake or reservoir helps cool them off. “Because of the cooling effect, we see increased efficiency of the systems,” said Sika Gadzanku, a researcher at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, who studies floatovoltaics but wasn’t involved in the new research. Returning the favor, the panels provide shading, reducing evaporation. If floatovoltaics are spread across a reservoir, that could mean more water would be available for drinking. If a reservoir is equipped with a dam for hydroelectric generation, the floatovoltaics could hook into that existing transmission infrastructure. (Countries like Kenya, for instance, are building out more of this hydroelectric infrastructure already.) That could save local governments money because they wouldn’t need to string new transmission lines from the floatovoltaics to the nearest city. In the event of a drought, when water levels drop too low to generate hydropower, the panels could still operate as backup power.  A floatovoltaic system in a water treatment pond in Healdsburg, California. Ciel & Terre International To do their new modeling, Woolway and his colleagues began with over a million lakes and reservoirs around the world  big enough and deep enough for floatovoltaics. Then they whittled those down based on critical qualities. For one, the body of water couldn’t dry up, beaching the panels, or freeze over for more than six months a year, entombing the panels in ice and damaging them. The lake couldn’t be protected by law, either, like as a natural refuge. And the site had to be near a human population that could use the generated power.  A remote lake, by contrast, would require long transmission lines to connect a faraway city to the floatovoltaics. This doesn’t necessarily rule out the technology for more remote communities of people living near an otherwise suitable lake. In fact, floatovoltaics could be particularly potent there as a way to provide clean energy. These cases just weren’t included in the scope of this modeling. Regardless, all those characteristics considered, the team ended up with 68,000 feasible locations in 163 countries. They found that on average, countries could meet 16 percent of their energy demand with floatovoltaics, but some places could generate a lot more. In Bolivia, for instance, floatovoltaics could provide up to 87 percent of national electricity demand, and in Tonga, they could meet 92 percent. The potential is much lower in the United States, however, meeting just 4 percent of energy demand — even though the country has a plethora of large lakes and reservoirs, overall energy usage is extremely high. In less-sunny climes, like northern Europe, the effectiveness of floatovoltaics drops, but Finland could still satisfy 17 percent of its electricity demand with floating panels.  “The regions or the countries that we saw had the highest potential had these two critical variables, in that they were close to the equator, or were at high elevations, so they received high amounts of incoming solar radiation,” Woolway said. “And secondly, they had large water bodies.”  Covering 10 percent of a 100-square-mile lake, for instance, would end up with a lot more solar panels than covering the same percentage of a 10-square-mile lake. “We considered 10 percent to be a reasonable surface area coverage without having a devastating impact on the ecology and the biodiversity,” Woolway said. “If you were to cover the surface 90 percent with solar panels, there would be no light going into the water itself.” This is where the new science of floatovoltaics gets tricky, as there’s still little data on the potential environmental and social downsides of these floating systems. Scientists are investigating, for example, whether the floats might leach harmful chemicals or microplastics into the water.  And keep in mind that these ecosystems are solar-powered, too: Light fuels the growth of aquatic vegetation, which feeds all kinds of other organisms. If a floatovoltaic system cuts off too much of that light, it might reduce the food supply, and hinder plants’ ability to produce  oxygen. “You’re changing light penetration, and that’s the most fundamental physical variable for an aquatic ecosystem,” said Rafael Almeida, a freshwater ecosystem scientist at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, who studies floatovoltaics but wasn’t involved in the new study. “If you don’t have enough light, and you’re reducing oxygen concentrations in that system, and that may cascade through the food web, potentially impacting fish.” At the same time, early research suggests that the panels can counter the growth of harmful algal blooms that make water dangerous for people to drink. Scientists are still trying to figure out what amount of coverage can still produce enough power to justify the monetary cost of deploying floatovoltaics, while not incurring ecological costs. Each body of water is its own unique universe of chemical and biological interactions, so the same coverage on two different lakes might have dramatically different effects. “Would 10 percent be enough to cascade into system-wide changes?” asks Almeida. “These are things that we really don’t know.” Researchers also need more data on how effective the panels are at reducing evaporation, and therefore how much water a given system might actually save. “What we are yet to fully understand is that so many of the existing floating solar systems that have tried to collect data on this have been smaller,” Gadzanku said. “So it is more: How do potential evaporation savings scale as you build larger systems?”  Humans rely on bodies of water in many ways other than for drinking. Subsistence fishers rely on them for food. And owners of lakefront properties might bristle if they think floating solar panels would cut their property values.  Still, Almeida says, this new research identifies where floatovoltaics might work, and how much energy they might provide given local conditions. “I think that now what we need,” said Almeida, “is understanding — out of these suitable sites — which ones are really the low-hanging fruits.” This story was originally published by Grist with the headline Coming soon to a lake near you: Floating solar panels on Jun 13, 2024.

Global demand for oil could peak soon – NZ’s plan to revive offshore exploration doesn’t add up

Even the big oil companies are predicting global demand will decline within decades. With investment in oil exploration projected to decline too, New Zealand should be putting its energy elsewhere.

Getty ImagesThis week’s announcement of the government’s plans to reopen New Zealand’s territorial waters to oil drilling comes as no surprise. All three coalition parties campaigned on reversing the 2018 ban on offshore oil exploration. But it flies in the face of projections that demand for oil could peak as early as this decade. Minister for Resources Shane Jones has confirmed the government plans to reverse the ban later this year and seeks to incentivise oil investors by paying them a bond in case their drilling rights are cancelled by future governments. The government is also considering weakening a law that requires oil and gas permit holders to pay for the decommissioning and clean-up of wells. This law was passed in 2021 in response to taxpayers having to pick up a NZ$400 million bill for decommissioning the Tui oil field after the financial collapse of the oil company. The government’s decisions go against projections by many sources, including the International Energy Agency, that demand for oil will decline soon as we electrify the global transport fleet. Consequently, investment in oil exploration is projected to decline too. Peak oil demand The use of fossil fuels is due to decline this decade, according to several major oil companies. A 2023 report by Shell projects fossil fuel use dropping rapidly in coming decades, while BP thinks oil demand for combustion has already peaked. Many large organisations think peak oil demand will happen this decade or the 2030s. This includes the International Energy Agency (IEA), which has predicted demand for oil will peak before 2030. The Organisation of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and Exxon Mobil are bullishly stating they see oil growth continuing, albeit at a slower rate, into the 2040s. But at the same time, Exxon Mobil is investing significantly in renewable energy, lithium mining and carbon capture technology. Even if oil demand peaks later than forecast, the progression from prospecting to exploration and mining can take decades. Projects prospected now may not yield fuel until demand is already in decline. We have enough oil to make the energy transition We’ve known for some time that remaining fossil fuels must stay in the ground to meet the Paris Agreement goal of keeping the world below 2°C above pre-industrial temperatures. The last UN climate summit – COP28 held late last year – agreed to “transition away from fossil fuels” and signalled the “beginning of the end” of the fossil fuel era. But further to this, the IEA has stated we don’t need any new fossil fuel exploration or development, with enough projects already in existence or planned to meet global energy demand forecasts to 2050. New research agrees, saying governments around the world should stop issuing new oil, gas and coal licences. In line with decreasing oil demand, BP also projects declining investment in new oil and gas infrastructure globally in coming decades. The IEA’s World Energy Investment report notes an ongoing hesitancy about oil and gas investment comes partly from concerns about downward long-term demand projections. New Zealand does not import natural gas, but our gas fields have been yielding less than forecast for some years. Therefore, to remain independent, some more maintenance drilling or limited new expansion may be needed to see us through the energy transition. But using taxpayer dollars to pay international oil companies to come to New Zealand doesn’t make economic or environmental sense. The momentum for the energy transition is unstoppable The good news is that the world’s energy sector, which produces almost 75% of global emissions, is now transitioning at an ever increasing rate. Significant amounts of renewable electricity generation (which is now far cheaper than fossil fuel generation) are being built, with global renewable capacity set to double this decade. New Zealand’s electricity system is already 85% renewable. Significant investment in renewable generation is under way ($42 billion by 2030) to supply the approximate doubling of electricity needed for the expected mass electrification of transport and industrial heat by 2050. Renewables are also being built to replace retiring coal plant. Global coal consumption peaked in 2013 and has flatlined since. In 2021, the COP26 global climate meeting in Glasgow agreed to phase down coal, and 60 national (and 51 sub-national) governments have joined the Powering Past Coal Alliance, committing them to phasing out all coal-fired power plants and not building new ones. Other uses of fossil fuels are in industrial heat and transport. Electric vehicle demand is skyrocketing globally, with the global fleet growing from 300,000 vehicles in 2013 to 41 million in 2023. With prices falling, electric vehicles are expected to reach price parity with internal combustion engine cars as early as 2025. Most large global vehicle manufacturers have pledged to produce only electric vehicles by 2030 or 2040. And 30 countries, including New Zealand, have signed the Zero Emissions Vehicle declaration to ban new petrol or diesel vehicle sales entirely by 2040. New Zealand should be enabling the energy transition The world is moving very rapidly away from coal and oil, and eventually all fossil fuels. A growing number of countries require adherence to Paris Agreement pledges by their trading partners. The recently signed free trade deal between New Zealand and the EU imposes trade sanctions if Paris pledges are not met. New Zealand’s current emissions reduction policies take us on a track that is much less than our per capita global fair share to limit warming. New Zealand should be moving away from oil drilling and instead invest in the energy transition, including decarbonisation of industrial heat, subsidising low-emitting vehicles and charging high emitters, better public transport and bike lanes, increased EV charging infrastructure, and “urban mining” (recycling) of batteries and other technology currently filling rubbish dumps. Jen Purdie has received funding from Deep South Science Challenge in the past, and currently has funding from MBIE's Smart Ideas fund.

Scientists Achieve Million-Fold Energy Enhancement in Diamond Optical Antennas

Theory has become practice as new work from the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering taps diamond defects’ remarkable ability to concentrate optical...

Atomic antennas using diamonds enhance optical energy by a million-fold, enabling new physics research. This was achieved through global collaboration between theory and experiments. Credit: SciTechDaily.comTheory has become practice as new work from the University of Chicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering taps diamond defects’ remarkable ability to concentrate optical energy.Researchers have developed atomic antennas using germanium vacancy centers in diamonds, achieving a million-fold optical energy enhancement. This advancement allows the study of fundamental physics and opens new research avenues. The collaboration between theoretical and experimental teams was essential to this breakthrough.Atomic Antennas: Harnessing Light for Powerful SignalsSimilar to how a radio antenna captures a broadcast from the air and concentrates the energy into music, individual atoms can collect and concentrate the energy of light into a strong, localized signal that researchers can use to investigate the fundamental building blocks of matter. The more powerful the intensity enhancement, the better the antenna. However, scientists have never been able to tap the potentially huge intensity enhancements of some “atomic antennas” in solid materials simply because they were solids.Overcoming the Challenges of Solid Materials“Most of the time when you have atoms in solids, they interact with the environment. There’s a lot of disorder, they get shaken by phonons and face other disruptions that reduce the coherence of the signal,” said UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering Assistant Professor Alex High.In a new paper published on June 7 in Nature Photonics, a multi-institutional team led by the High Lab has cracked this problem. They have used germanium vacancy centers in diamonds to create an optical energy enhancement of six orders of magnitude, a regime challenging to reach with conventional antenna structures.PhD candidate Zixi Li at the UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering is the co-first author on a new paper from the lab of Asst. Prof. Alex High, which demonstrates a new way to provide more powerful measurements on the atomic level. Credit: Photo by Hong Qiao / UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular EngineeringGroundbreaking Optical Antennas With DiamondsThis million-fold energy enhancement creates what the paper calls an “exemplary” optical antenna and provides a new tool opening up entirely new research areas.“It’s not just a breakthrough in technology. It’s also a breakthrough in fundamental physics,” said PME PhD candidate Zixi Li, co-first author on the paper. “While it’s well-known that an excited atomic dipole can generate a near-filed with huge intensity, no one has ever demonstrated this in an experiment before.”From Theory to Practice: Realizing Optical AntennasThe core feature of an optical antenna is that it creates an oscillating electronic dipole when excited at resonance.“Optical antennas are basically structures that interact with electromagnetic fields and absorb or emit light at certain resonances, like the electrons moving between energy levels in these color centers,” High said.The electron oscillates when it transitions between an excited state and a ground state and concentrates a comparatively huge amount of energy, making an atomic optical dipole in a solid an excellent antenna – theoretically.“It’s not just a breakthrough in technology. It’s also a breakthrough in fundamental physics.”— UChicago Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering PhD candidate Zixi LiAddressing the Challenges in Solid-State AtomsWhat kept that ability theoretical was the fact the atoms were in solids, subject to all the jostling, electron interference and general noise that comes from being part of a tightly-packed structure. Color centers – small defects in diamonds and other materials with interesting quantum properties – provided the team a solution.“Something that’s been observed for the last seven or eight years is that certain types of color centers can be immune to these environmental effects,” High said.Potential of Quantum Mechanical Light EmissionThis opens intriguing research opportunities, said co-author Darrick Chang of the Institute of Photonic Sciences in Barcelona, Spain.“To me, the most interesting aspect of a color center is not just the field enhancement, but also the fact that the emitted light is intrinsically quantum mechanical,” he said. “That makes it intriguing to consider whether a ‘quantum optical antenna’ can have a different set of functionalities and working mechanisms as compared to a classical optical antenna.”Collaborations Paving the Way for InnovationsBut turning this theory into a practicable antenna took years, collaboration with researchers around the globe and theoretical guidance from UChicago’s Galli Group.“The collaboration between theory, computation and experiments initiated by Alex High not only contributed to understanding and interpreting the core science, but also opened new lines of research on the computational side,” said PME Liew Family Prof. Guilia Galli, a co-author on the paper. “The collaboration has been extremely fruitful.”‘The Magic of a Color Center’Imaging at the atomic level is a combination of amplification and bandwidth – the strength of the signal and the amount of signal you can study. Because of this, co-first author Xinghan Guo sees the new technique as complementary to, not replacing, existing techniques.“We offer a much higher amplification but our bandwidth is narrower,” said Guo, who recently completed his PhD at PME and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Yale. “If you have a very selective signal which has a narrow bandwidth but requires a lot of amplification, you can come to us.”Advantages of New TechniquesThe new technique offers other benefits than just a more powerful signal. While existing techniques like single-molecule Raman and FRET spectroscopy boost the signal by blasting it with light, this technique only requires nanowatts of energy to activate. This means a strong signal without the bleaching, heating and background fluorescence that excessive light creates.The germanium vacancy centers also do not dissipate energy as they are used, unlike conventional plasmonic antennas.“The magic of a color center is that it is simultaneously point-like and avoids the losses of a plasmonic material, allowing it to retain its extreme field enhancement,” Chang said.Future Discoveries With Optical AntennasFor High, the exciting part is not the new form of antenna, but the potential discoveries they will make.“What’s exciting is that this is a general feature,” High said. “We can integrate these color centers into a huge range of systems, and then we can use these as local antennas to grow new processes that both build new devices and help us understand how the universe works.”Reference: “Atomic optical antennas in solids” by Zixi Li, Xinghan Guo, Yu Jin, Francesco Andreoli, Anil Bilgin, David D. Awschalom, Nazar Delegan, F. Joseph Heremans, Darrick Chang, Giulia Galli and Alexander A. High, 7 June 2024, Nature Photonics.DOI: 10.1038/s41566-024-01456-5Funding: Q-NEXT, supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Science, National Quantum Information Science Research Centers. Z.L. acknowledges support from the Kadanoff-Rice fellowship (grant no. NSF DMR-2011854). Diamond growth-related efforts were supported by the US Department of Energy, Office of Basic Energy Sciences, Materials Science and Engineering Division.

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