Space-Based Solar Power Project Funded

A sponsored research agreement with Northrop Grumman Corporation will provide Caltech up to $17.5 million over three years for the development of the Space Solar Power Initiative (SSPI). The SSPI will develop the scientific and technological innovations necessary to enable a space-based solar power system—consisting of ultralight, high-efficiency photovoltaics, a phased-array system to produce and distribute power dynamically, and ultralight deployable space structures—that ultimately will be capable of generating electric power at a cost comparable to that from fossil-fuel power plants.

The project was conceived and will be led jointly by three professors in Caltech's Division of Engineering and Applied Science (EAS): Harry A. Atwater, Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science and director of the Resnick Sustainability Institute; Ali Hajimiri, Thomas G. Myers Professor of Electrical Engineering; and Sergio Pellegrino, Joyce and Kent Kresa Professor of Aeronautics, professor of civil engineering, and a senior research scientist at Caltech's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Atwater's group will design and demonstrate ultralight, high-efficiency photovoltaics optimized for space conditions and compatible with an integrated, modular power conversion/transmission system.

Hajimiri's team will develop the integrated circuits and the antenna design for the system's large-scale phased array, timing control, and conversion of direct current to radio frequency power. "The three groups are working closely to take a holistic approach to the design of the entire system," he says.

Through a modular approach power will be generated, converted, and radiated locally at the same place in space using a distributed power conversion and transmission solution created with modern integrated electronics that eliminates inter- and intramodule power wiring in the system. "This significantly reduces the system mass, and thereby its cost," he adds.

"This space-based, highly adaptive power generator will enable versatile on-demand power anywhere on the planet and will be able to almost instantly distribute the power to different locations," Hajimiri says. "This is enabled through an agile phased-array system that can dynamically direct the power to the desired locations on Earth and simultaneously provide power to multiple destinations on demand. This can substantially reduce the need and the cost associated with the power distribution network across the globe."

Any such system must first be able to collect the solar energy that is then converted and distributed. "One of the key barriers to the realization of cost-competitive space-based solar power systems is the deployment in space of large surface area structures to collect solar power, at low cost," says Pellegrino. "The cost and complexity of launching and deploying conventional deployable structures would be unacceptable for many applications." To circumvent this barrier, his team is developing novel architectures for multifunctional deployable space structures with an overall areal density on the order of 100 grams per square meter, equivalent to one or two sheets of paper. "The concepts that we are investigating build on over 10 years of research on deployable thin-shell structures, which most recently had resulted in the development of low-cost fiber-composite booms and reflectors in which elastic hinges are created simply by making small cuts in the wall of a shell structure," he says.

To achieve all of these goals, Atwater, Hajimiri, and Pellegrino already have assembled a team of students, postdoctoral scholars, and senior researchers that will eventually exceed 50 members. In addition, the EAS division is in the process of building specialized laboratory facilities to support the team. Meanwhile, Northrop Grumman engineers and scientists will collaborate with the Caltech researchers to develop solutions, build prototypes, and obtain experimental and numerical validation of concepts that will allow for the eventual implementation of the system.

"This initiative is a great example of how Caltech engineers are working at the leading edges of fundamental science to invent the technologies of the future," says Ares Rosakis, Otis Booth Leadership Chair of the EAS division and the Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering. "The Space Solar Power Initiative brings together electrical engineers, applied physicists, and aerospace engineers in the type of profound interdisciplinary collaboration that is seamlessly enhanced at a small place like Caltech. I believe it also demonstrates the value of industry and academic partnerships. We are working on extremely difficult problems that could eventually provide the world with new, and very cost-competitive technology for sustainable energy."

"By working together with Caltech, Northrop Grumman extends its long heritage of innovation in space-based technologies and mission solutions," said Joseph Ensor, vice president and general manager, Space Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) Systems, Northrop Grumman, in a press release. "The potential breakthroughs from this research could have extensive applications across a number of related power use challenges."

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Tracking Photosynthesis from Space

Watching plants perform photosynthesis from space sounds like a futuristic proposal, but a new application of data from NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 (OCO-2) satellite may enable scientists to do just that. The new technique, which allows researchers to analyze plant productivity from far above Earth, will provide a clearer picture of the global carbon cycle and may one day help researchers determine the best regional farming practices and even spot early signs of drought.

When plants are alive and healthy, they engage in photosynthesis, absorbing sunlight and carbon dioxide to produce food for the plant, and generating oxygen as a by-product. But photosynthesis does more than keep plants alive. On a global scale, the process takes up some of the man-made emissions of atmospheric carbon dioxide—a greenhouse gas that traps the sun's heat down on Earth—meaning that plants also have an important role in mitigating climate change.

To perform photosynthesis, the chlorophyll in leaves absorbs sunlight—most of which is used to create food for the plants or is lost as heat. However, a small fraction of that absorbed light is reemitted as near-infrared light. We cannot see in the near-infrared portion of the spectrum with the naked eye, but if we could, this reemitted light would make the plants appear to glow—a property called solar induced fluorescence (SIF). Because this reemitted light is only produced when the chlorophyll in plants is also absorbing sunlight for photosynthesis, SIF can be used as a way to determine a plant's photosynthetic activity and productivity.

"The intensity of the SIF appears to be very correlated with the total productivity of the plant," says JPL scientist Christian Frankenberg, who is lead for the SIF product and will join the Caltech faculty in September as an associate professor of environmental science and engineering in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences.

Usually, when researchers try to estimate photosynthetic activity from satellites, they utilize a measure called the greenness index, which uses reflections in the near-infrared spectrum of light to determine the amount of chlorophyll in the plant. However, this is not a direct measurement of plant productivity; a plant that contains chlorophyll is not necessarily undergoing photosynthesis. "For example," Frankenberg says, "evergreen trees are green in the winter even when they are dormant."

He adds, "When a plant starts to undergo stress situations, like in California during a summer day when it's getting very hot and dry, the plants still have chlorophyll"—chlorophyll that would still appear to be active in the greenness index—"but they usually close the tiny pores in their leaves to reduce water loss, and that time of stress is also when SIF is reduced. So photosynthesis is being very strongly reduced at the same time that the fluorescence signal is also getting weaker, albeit at a smaller rate."

The Caltech and JPL team, as well as colleagues from NASA Goddard, discovered that they could measure SIF from orbit using spectrometers—standard instruments that can detect light intensity—that are already on board satellites like Japan's Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite (GOSAT) and NASA's OCO-2.

In 2014, using this new technique with data from GOSAT and the European Global Ozone Monitoring Experiment–2 satellite, the researchers scoured the globe for the most productive plants and determined that the U.S. "Corn Belt"—the farming region stretching from Ohio to Nebraska—is the most photosynthetically active place on the planet. Although it stands to reason that a cornfield during growing season would be actively undergoing photosynthesis, the high-resolution measurements from a satellite enabled global comparison to other plant-heavy regions—such as tropical rainforests.

"Before, when people used the greenness index to represent active photosynthesis, they had trouble determining the productivity of very dense plant areas, such as forests or cornfields. With enough green plant material in the field of view, these greenness indexes can saturate; they reach a maximum value they can't exceed," Frankenberg says. Because of the sensitivity of the SIF measurements, researchers can now compare the true productivity of fields from different regions without this saturation—information that could potentially be used to compare the efficiency of farming practices around the world.

Now that OCO-2 is online and producing data, Frankenberg says that it is capable of achieving higher resolution than the preliminary experiments with GOSAT. Therefore, OCO-2 will be able to provide an even clearer picture of plant productivity worldwide. However, to get more specific information about how plants influence the global carbon cycle, an evenly distributed ground-based network of spectrometers will be needed. Such a network—located down among the plants rather than miles above—will provide more information about regional uptake of carbon dioxide via photosynthesis and the mechanistic link between SIF and actual carbon exchange.

One existing network, called FLUXNET, uses ground-based towers to measure the exchange of carbon dioxide, or carbon flux, between the land and the atmosphere from towers at more than 600 locations worldwide. However, the towers only measure the exchange of carbon dioxide and are unable to directly observe the activities of the biosphere that drive this exchange.

The new ground-based measurements will ideally take place at existing FLUXNET sites, but they will be performed with a small set of high-resolution spectrometers—similar to the kind that OCO-2 uses—to allow the researchers to use the same measurement principles they developed for space. The revamped ground network was initially proposed in a 2012 workshop at the Keck Institute for Space Studies and is expected to go online sometime in the next two years.

In the future, a clear picture of global plant productivity could influence a range of decisions relevant to farmers, commodity traders, and policymakers. "Right now, the SIF data we can gather from space is too coarse of a picture to be really helpful for these conversations, but, in principle, with the satellite and ground-based measurements you could track the fluorescence in fields at different times of day," he says. This hourly tracking would not only allow researchers to detect the productivity of the plants, but it could also spot the first signs of plant stress—a factor that impacts crop prices and food security around the world.

"The measurements of SIF from OCO-2 greatly extend the science of this mission", says Paul Wennberg, R. Stanton Avery Professor of Atmospheric Chemistry and Environmental Science and Engineering, director of the Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, and a member of the OCO-2 science team. "OCO-2 was designed to map carbon dioxide, and scientists plan to use these measurements to determine the underlying sources and sinks of this important gas. The new SIF measurements will allow us to diagnose the efficiency of the plants—a key component of the sinks of carbon dioxide."

By using OCO-2 to diagnose plant activity around the globe, this new research could also contribute to understanding the variability in crop primary productivity and also, eventually, the development of technologies that can improve crop efficiency—a goal that could greatly benefit humankind, Frankenberg says.

This project is funded by the Keck Institute for Space Studies and JPL. Wennberg is also an executive officer for the Environmental Science and Engineering (ESE) program. ESE is a joint program of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science, the division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences.

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Caltech’s Linde Center Helps Navigate the Southern Ocean

At Caltech's Ronald and Maxine Linde Center for Global Environmental Science, researchers from diverse disciplines work together to investigate Earth's climate and its atmosphere, oceans, and biosphere; their evolution; and how they may change in the future.

In early February, the center hosted a three-day workshop focused on the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. Scientists from around the world working at the intersection of fluid dynamics and biochemistry gathered to summarize our current knowledge of the physical, chemical, and biological processes that are critical to the Southern Ocean's circulation and marine ecosystems. The researchers set out to identify areas where collaboration across disciplines is needed to push that understanding forward. Here are a few of the topics they covered.

The Use of Autonomous Underwater Vehicles for Observation 

Credit: Sunke Schmidtko

The Southern Ocean is one of the most inhospitable places on Earth. Despite the area's importance to the global climate, measurements and data are hard to come by because it is difficult to deploy research vessels in the region, especially in winter. Little, if any, data have been collected in some areas, especially in the deep ocean and underneath ice shelves.

But many new tools now exist to improve data collection and measurement in these remote regions. Autonomous gliders (shown above) have gathered information on currents, water density, and temperature at many depths, helping researchers like workshop participants Nicole Couto (Rutgers University), Mike Meredith (British Antarctic Survey), as well as Caltech's Andrew Thompson, assistant professor of environmental science and engineering, understand how warm waters are causing ice sheets to melt. Meanwhile, an extensive system of autonomous floats monitors temperature, salinity, dissolved gases and currents in the earth's oceans; moored instruments track what is happening beneath ice shelves; and even Antarctic seals outfitted with sensors provide scientists access to, and information about, some of the ocean's coldest and most inaccessible waters.

Iron Limitation on Phytoplankton Growth

Credit: NASA/Suomi NPP/Norman Kuring

Phytoplankton, microscopic algae that perform photosynthesis, the base of the Southern Ocean food web. These organisms require both nutrients and sunlight to survive. The Southern Ocean is a region where nutrients and sunlight (at least in summer) are plentiful, yet many parts of the Southern Ocean have extremely low phytoplankton concentrations. This is because not all nutrients are treated equally. Take iron, for example. Although iron is needed only in small amounts by phytoplankton, it is scarce throughout most of the Southern Ocean. Iron enters ocean waters by way of dust falling out of the atmosphere, from melting icebergs or glaciers, and from the ocean floor. Meeting participants Phil Boyd (University of Tasmania) and Nicolas Cassar (Duke University) are working to understand how sources of iron will respond to changing atmospheric and oceanic conditions, as well as how Southern Ocean ecosystems will adapt, are important research questions.

Phytoplankton distributions are largely observed by measuring ocean color from space. This image shows data from NASA's MODIS (MODerate resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) satellite, which measures light coming off the ocean, NASA scientists use this information to determine the concentration of phytoplankton in the water. Here, yellow and orange colors indicate the presence of more phytoplankton.

The Importance of High Spatial Resolution in Ocean Models

Credit: Jeff Schmalz/NASA

The ocean is similar to the atmosphere in that much of the variability is contained in "weather systems," or high- and low-pressure areas. These weather systems create swirling currents, called eddies, that are the ocean equivalent of atmospheric storms. While storms in the atmosphere span hundreds of kilometers, eddies in the ocean only cover a few tens of kilometers. When numerical models, such as those run by meeting participant Andy Hogg (Australia National University), capture these smaller scales, the simulations explode with previously unseen dynamics and produce an energetic circulation that is more vigorous than seen in models that only simulate larger scales.

This image of Chatham Island, off the coast of New Zealand, was taken by MODIS. The blue wispy pattern (upper right) is a phytoplankton bloom that is being stretched and stirred by ocean eddies. Images like this one verify that high-resolution numerical models accurately reproduce oceanic motions and provide insight into how these small-scale currents influence Southern Ocean ecosystems.

Heat Input

Credit: Courtesy of Whit Anderson/The Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Lab in Princeton, NJ

Increasing carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere warm the planet, with roughly 90 percent of the extra energy going into the oceans. The ocean warming that results is not uniform around the globe. Numerical models from the group of meeting participant John Marshall (MIT) suggest that the warming of the Southern Ocean will occur later than that of other oceans. The reason? The Southern Ocean provides a gateway where cold, dense waters, stored in the deep ocean, are brought up to the surface by the ocean circulation and are exposed to the atmosphere. These cold waters have the potential to store a large amount of heat. Understanding when this reservoir will be exhausted is critical to predicting future Southern Ocean temperature changes.

In this sea-surface temperature map created by a NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory model, Southern Ocean waters (green and blue) represent regions where cold water rises up to the surface, warms, and moves northward.

The Distribution of Sea Ice

Credit: Hannah Joy-Warren, Stanford graduate student, taken during the Phantastic II cruise to the west Antarctic Peninsula (October/November 2014).

The distribution of sea ice in the Southern Ocean is important for many reasons. For instance, sea ice can act as a cap on the ocean, limiting atmospheric interactions with the ocean surface that may trap carbon in the deep ocean. Recently, Caltech researchers including Thompson and Jess Adkins, professor of geochemistry and global environmental science, discovered a link between the distribution of sea ice in the Southern Ocean and differences in the ocean circulation in our present climate and at the Last Glacial Maximum.

As sea ice retreats, additional melting can be a source of iron to the ocean, influencing phytoplankton growth. The capacity for plankton and other organisms to survive the Antarctic winter is only just beginning to be understood, as explained in a recent review article on sea ice ecosystems by meeting participant Kevin Arrigo (Stanford University). Future under-ice observations are needed to improve our ability to estimate ecosystem changes in polar regions.

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JPL News: California Tuolumne Snowpack 40 Percent of Worst Year

New NASA data find the snowpack in the Tuolumne River Basin in California's Sierra Nevada—a major source of water for millions of Californians—currently contains just 40 percent as much water as it did near this time at its highest level of 2014, one of the two driest years in California's recorded history. The data were acquired through a partnership with the California Department of Water Resources, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission and the Turlock and Modesto irrigation districts.

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Friday, April 17, 2015
Sherman Fairchild Library 328 (Multimedia Conference Room) – Sherman Fairchild Library of Engineering and Applied Science

Earth Month Movie Night: Growing Cities

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Friction Means Antarctic Glaciers More Sensitive to Climate Change Than We Thought

One of the biggest unknowns in understanding the effects of climate change today is the melting rate of glacial ice in Antarctica. Scientists agree rising atmospheric and ocean temperatures could destabilize these ice sheets, but there is uncertainty about how fast they will lose ice.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is of particular concern to scientists because it contains enough ice to raise global sea level by up to 16 feet, and its physical configuration makes it susceptible to melting by warm ocean water. Recent studies have suggested that the collapse of certain parts of the ice sheet is inevitable. But will that process take several decades or centuries?

Research by Caltech scientists now suggests that estimates of future rates of melt for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—and, by extension, of future sea-level rise—have been too conservative. In a new study, published online on March 9 in the Journal of Glaciology, a team led by Victor Tsai, an assistant professor of geophysics, found that properly accounting for Coulomb friction—a type of friction generated by solid surfaces sliding against one another—in computer models significantly increases estimates of how sensitive the ice sheet is to temperature perturbations driven by climate change.

Unlike other ice sheets that are moored to land above the ocean, most of West Antarctica's ice sheet is grounded on a sloping rock bed that lies below sea level. In the past decade or so, scientists have focused on the coastal part of the ice sheet where the land ice meets the ocean, called the "grounding line," as vital for accurately determining the melting rate of ice in the southern continent.

"Our results show that the stability of the whole ice sheet and our ability to predict its future melting is extremely sensitive to what happens in a very small region right at the grounding line. It is crucial to accurately represent the physics here in numerical models," says study coauthor Andrew Thompson, an assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech.

Part of the seafloor on which the West Antarctic Ice Sheet rests slopes upward toward the ocean in what scientists call a "reverse slope gradient." The end of the ice sheet also floats on the ocean surface so that ocean currents can deliver warm water to its base and melt the ice from below. Scientists think this "basal melting" could cause the grounding line to retreat inland, where the ice sheet is thicker. Because ice thickness is a key factor in controlling ice discharge near the coast, scientists worry that the retreat of the grounding line could accelerate the rate of interior ice flow into the oceans. Grounding line recession also contributes to the thinning and melting away of the region's ice shelves—thick, floating extensions of the ice sheet that help reduce the flow of ice into the sea.

According to Tsai, many earlier models of ice sheet dynamics tried to simplify calculations by assuming that ice loss is controlled solely by viscous stresses, that is, forces that apply to "sticky fluids" such as honey—or in this case, flowing ice. The conventional models thus accounted for the flow of ice around obstacles but ignored friction. "Accounting for frictional stresses at the ice sheet bottom in addition to the viscous stresses changes the physical picture dramatically," Tsai says.

In their new study, Tsai's team used computer simulations to show that even though Coulomb friction affects only a relatively small zone on an ice sheet, it can have a big impact on ice stream flow and overall ice sheet stability.

In most previous models, the ice sheet sits firmly on the bed and generates a downward stress that helps keep it attached it to the seafloor. Furthermore, the models assumed that this stress remains constant up to the grounding line, where the ice sheet floats, at which point the stress disappears.

Tsai and his team argue that their model provides a more realistic representation—in which the stress on the bottom of the ice sheet gradually weakens as one approaches the coasts and grounding line, because the weight of the ice sheet is increasingly counteracted by water pressure at the glacier base. "Because a strong basal shear stress cannot occur in the Coulomb model, it completely changes how the forces balance at the grounding line," Thompson says.

Tsai says the idea of investigating the effects of Coulomb friction on ice sheet dynamics came to him after rereading a classic study on the topic by American metallurgist and glaciologist Johannes Weertman from Northwestern University. "I wondered how might the behavior of the ice sheet differ if one factored in this water-pressure effect from the ocean, which Weertman didn't know would be important when he published his paper in 1974," Tsai says.

Tsai thought about how this could be achieved and realized the answer might lie in another field in which he is actively involved: earthquake research. "In seismology, Coulomb friction is very important because earthquakes are thought to be the result of the edge of one tectonic plate sliding against the edge of another plate frictionally," Tsai said. "This ice sheet research came about partly because I'm working on both glaciology and earthquakes."

If the team's Coulomb model is correct, it could have important implications for predictions of ice loss in Antarctica as a result of climate change. Indeed, for any given increase in temperature, the model predicts a bigger change in the rate of ice loss than is forecasted in previous models. "We predict that the ice sheets are more sensitive to perturbations such as temperature," Tsai says.

Hilmar Gudmundsson, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK, called the team's results "highly significant." "Their work gives further weight to the idea that a marine ice sheet, such as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, is indeed, or at least has the potential to become, unstable," says Gudmundsson, who was not involved in the study.

Glaciologist Richard Alley, of Pennsylvania State University, noted that historical studies have shown that ice sheets can remain stable for centuries or millennia and then switch to a different configuration suddenly.

"If another sudden switch happens in West Antarctica, sea level could rise a lot, so understanding what is going on at the grounding lines is essential," says Alley, who also did not participate in the research.

"Tsai and coauthors have taken another important step in solving this difficult problem," he says.

Along with Tsai and Thompson, Andrew Stewart, an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UCLA, was also a coauthor on the paper, "Marine ice sheet profiles and stability under Coulomb basal conditions." Funding support for the study was provided by Caltech's President's and Director's Fund program and the Stanback Discovery Fund for Global Environmental Science.

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New Technique Could Harvest More of the Sun's Energy

As solar panels become less expensive and capable of generating more power, solar energy is becoming a more commercially viable alternative source of electricity. However, the photovoltaic cells now used to turn sunlight into electricity can only absorb and use a small fraction of that light, and that means a significant amount of solar energy goes untapped.

A new technology created by researchers from Caltech, and described in a paper published online in the October 30 issue of Science Express, represents a first step toward harnessing that lost energy.

Sunlight is composed of many wavelengths of light. In a traditional solar panel, silicon atoms are struck by sunlight and the atoms' outermost electrons absorb energy from some of these wavelengths of sunlight, causing the electrons to get excited. Once the excited electrons absorb enough energy to jump free from the silicon atoms, they can flow independently through the material to produce electricity. This is called the photovoltaic effect—a phenomenon that takes place in a solar panel's photovoltaic cells.

Although silicon-based photovoltaic cells can absorb light wavelengths that fall in the visible spectrum—light that is visible to the human eye—longer wavelengths such as infrared light pass through the silicon. These wavelengths of light pass right through the silicon and never get converted to electricity—and in the case of infrared, they are normally lost as unwanted heat.

"The silicon absorbs only a certain fraction of the spectrum, and it's transparent to the rest. If I put a photovoltaic module on my roof, the silicon absorbs that portion of the spectrum, and some of that light gets converted into power. But the rest of it ends up just heating up my roof," says Harry A. Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science; director, Resnick Sustainability Institute, who led the study.

Now, Atwater and his colleagues have found a way to absorb and make use of these infrared waves with a structure composed not of silicon, but entirely of metal.

The new technique they've developed is based on a phenomenon observed in metallic structures known as plasmon resonance. Plasmons are coordinated waves, or ripples, of electrons that exist on the surfaces of metals at the point where the metal meets the air.

While the plasmon resonances of metals are predetermined in nature, Atwater and his colleagues found that those resonances are capable of being tuned to other wavelengths when the metals are made into tiny nanostructures in the lab.

"Normally in a metal like silver or copper or gold, the density of electrons in that metal is fixed; it's just a property of the material," Atwater says. "But in the lab, I can add electrons to the atoms of metal nanostructures and charge them up. And when I do that, the resonance frequency will change."

"We've demonstrated that these resonantly excited metal surfaces can produce a potential"—an effect very similar to rubbing a glass rod with a piece of fur: you deposit electrons on the glass rod. "You charge it up, or build up an electrostatic charge that can be discharged as a mild shock," he says. "So similarly, exciting these metal nanostructures near their resonance charges up those metal structures, producing an electrostatic potential that you can measure."

This electrostatic potential is a first step in the creation of electricity, Atwater says. "If we can develop a way to produce a steady-state current, this could potentially be a power source. He envisions a solar cell using the plasmoelectric effect someday being used in tandem with photovoltaic cells to harness both visible and infrared light for the creation of electricity.

Although such solar cells are still on the horizon, the new technique could even now be incorporated into new types of sensors that detect light based on the electrostatic potential.

"Like all such inventions or discoveries, the path of this technology is unpredictable," Atwater says. "But any time you can demonstrate a new effect to create a sensor for light, that finding has almost always yielded some kind of new product."

This work was published in a paper titled, "Plasmoelectric Potentials in Metal Nanostructures." Other coauthors include first author Matthew T. Sheldon, a former postdoctoral scholar at Caltech; Ana M. Brown, an applied physics graduate student at Caltech; and Jorik van de Groep and Albert Polman from the FOM Institute AMOLF in Amsterdam. The study was funded by the Department of Energy, the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research, and an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.

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Photosynthesis: A Planetary Revolution

Watson Lecture Preview

Two and a half billion years ago, single-celled organisms called cyanobacteria harnessed sunlight to split water molecules, producing energy to power their cells and releasing oxygen into an atmosphere that had previously had none. These early environmental engineers are responsible for the life we see around us today, and much more besides.

At 8:00 p.m. on Wednesday, November 19, in Caltech's Beckman Auditorium, Professor of Geobiology Woodward "Woody" Fischer will describe how they transformed the planet. Admission is free.


Q: What do you do?

A: I'm a geobiologist of the historical variety. I'm trying to understand both how the earth works, and why it works that way. The whys are hard, because you can't redo this planetary experiment. You have to create clever ways to work backward from what you can observe to answer the question you've posed.

When you boil down the earth's history, there are maybe a half-dozen singularities—fundamental changes in how our planet and the life on it interact. Photosynthetic cyanobacteria reengineered the planet. Photosynthesis led to two more singularities—plants and animals appeared. The remaining singularities are mass extinctions as a result of something happening to the global environment, and photosynthesis likely caused one of those as well. Oxygen can be highly toxic because it's so reactive. It chews up your DNA, and it binds to the metal compounds that cells use to shuttle electrons around. Any microbes that couldn't cope with this new pollutant died off, or were forced to hide in oxygen-depleted environments.

Atmospheric oxygen resulted from a change to a microbe's metabolism that evolved once, at a specific time in the earth's history. We want to know why that happened. What were those bacteria doing beforehand? What forced them to develop this radically new way of making a living?

Bacteria don't leave fossils, per se, but they can leave behind metabolic signatures that sedimentary rocks preserve. They impact the rock's elemental composition, and they alter the ratios between heavier and lighter isotopes of certain elements as well. We can work backward from that information to deduce what the bacteria were doing on the ocean floor and in the seawater above it as those sediments were being laid down.


Q: If the earth has had breathable oxygen for billions of years, why should we care where it came from?

A: There are two really good reasons.

One has to do with meeting society's energy demands. There's a tremendous effort at Caltech and elsewhere to develop "solar fuels." Can we do better than green plants? If cyanobacteria did the best they could under tight constraints, maybe not. But if there are a variety of ways to do that chemistry, maybe we can clear the slate and do something entirely different.

The deeper reason is that atmospheric oxygen rewrote life's recipe book. Oxygen-based metabolism provides extra energy that can be invested in cellular specialization. A group of specialized cells can become a tissue, and eventually you have complex creatures with limbs. It's like agriculture—when you start growing crops, you have surplus food. Villages spring up. Craftsmen appear.

It gets to the Big Question—how rare are we? The earth is 4.5 billion years old, and the oldest evidence for life is about 3.5 billion years old. It took another billion years until photosynthesis, and two billion more for animals to develop. Is it possible to evolve advanced creatures under a different set of constraints leading to completely different metabolisms? If we're looking for life on worlds that play by different rules, will we recognize it?


Q: How did you get into this line of work?

A: As a small kid, I always loved science. That disappeared somewhere in middle school, so I went to Colorado College in Colorado Springs—a small, liberal-arts school with a really intense curriculum called the block plan. You take one class at a time for a month. You're completely immersed—lecture from nine to twelve, break for lunch, afternoon labs, evening homework. Lather, rinse, repeat. I took a geology class on a whim, because my grandfather had once taught paleontology there. The class vanished into the mountains for a month, and I was hooked.

In graduate school at Harvard, I worked with Andy Knoll, a Precambrian paleontologist who's trying to understand what the world looked like before animals. Andy's primary appointment is actually in the biology department, and I built on my sedimentary-geology background with a lot of biology classes—molecular biology, biochemistry, genomics, comparative biology, evolutionary biology. And then I came here as an Agouron Postdoctoral Scholar in Geobiology in 2007. I was fortunate that they invited me to stay.


Named for the late Caltech professor Earnest C. Watson, who founded the series in 1922, the Watson Lectures present Caltech and JPL researchers describing their work to the public. Many past Watson Lectures are available online at Caltech's iTunes U site.
Douglas Smith
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Rock-Dwelling Microbes Remove Methane from Deep Sea

Methane-breathing microbes that inhabit rocky mounds on the seafloor could be preventing large volumes of the potent greenhouse gas from entering the oceans and reaching the atmosphere, according to a new study by Caltech researchers.

The rock-dwelling microbes, which are detailed in the Oct. 14 issue of Nature Communications, represent a previously unrecognized biological sink for methane and as a result could reshape scientists' understanding of where this greenhouse gas is being consumed in subseafloor habitats, says Professor of Geobiology Victoria Orphan, who led the study.

"Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so tracing its flow through the environment is really a priority for climate models and for understanding the carbon cycle," Orphan says.

Orphan's team has been studying methane-breathing marine microorganisms for nearly 20 years. The microbes they focus on survive without oxygen, relying instead on sulfate ions present in seawater for their energy needs. Previous work by Orphan's team helped show that the methane-breathing system is actually made up of two different kinds of microorganisms that work closely with one another. One of the partners, dubbed "ANME" for "ANaerobic MEthanotrophs," belongs to a type of ancient single-celled creatures called the archaea.

Through a mechanism that is still unclear, ANME work closely with bacteria to consume methane using sulfate from seawater. "Without this biological process, much of that methane would enter the water column, and the escape rates into the atmosphere would probably be quite a bit higher," says study first author Jeffrey Marlow, a geobiology graduate student in Orphan's lab.

Until now, however, the activity of ANME and their bacterial partners had been primarily studied in sediments located in cold seeps, areas on the ocean bottom where methane is escaping from subseafloor sources into the water above. The new study marks the first time they have been observed to oxidize methane inside carbonate mounds, huge rocky outcroppings of calcium carbonate that can rise hundreds of feet above the seafloor.

If the microbes are living inside the mounds themselves, then the distribution of methane consumption is significantly different from what was previously thought. "Methane-derived carbonates represent a large volume within many seep systems, and finding active methane-consuming archaea and bacteria in the interior of these carbonate rocks extends the known habitat for methane-consuming microorganisms beyond the relatively thin layer of sediment that may overlay a carbonate mound," Marlow says.

Orphan and her team detected evidence of methane-breathing microbes in carbonate rocks collected from three cold seeps around the world: one at a tectonic plate boundary near Costa Rica; another in the Eel River basin off the coast of northwestern California; and at Hydrate Ridge, off the Oregon coast. The team used manned and robotic submersibles to collect the rock samples from depths ranging from 2,000 feet to nearly half a mile below the surface.

Marlow has vivid memories of being a passenger in the submersible Alvin during one of those rock-retrieval missions. "As you sink down, the water outside your window goes from bright blue surface water to darker turquoise and navy blue and all these shades of blue that you didn't know existed until it gets completely dark," Marlow recalls. "And then you start seeing flashes of light because the vehicle is perturbing the water column and exciting florescent organisms. When you finally get to the seafloor, Alvin's exterior lights turn on, and this crazy alien world is illuminated in front of you."

The carbonate mounds that the subs visited often serve as foundations for coral and sponges, and are home to rockfishes, clams, crabs, and other aquatic life. For their study, the team members gathered rock samples not only from carbonate mounds located within active cold seeps, where methane could be seen escaping from the seafloor into the water, but also from mounds that appeared to be dormant.

Once the carbonate rocks were collected, they were transported back to the surface and rushed into a cold room aboard a research ship. In the cold room, which was maintained at the temperature of the deep sea, the team cracked open the carbonates in order to gather material from their interiors. "We wanted to make sure we weren't just sampling material from the surface of the rocks," Marlow says.

Using a microscope, the team confirmed that ANME and sulfate-reducing bacterial cells were indeed present inside the carbonate rocks, and genetic analysis of their DNA showed that they were related to methanotrophs that had previously been characterized in seafloor sediment. The scientists also used a technique that involved radiolabeled 14C-methane tracer gas to quantify the rates of methane consumption in the carbonate rocks and sediments from both the actively seeping sites and the areas appearing to be inactive. They found that the rock-dwelling methanotrophs consumed methane at a slower rate than their sediment-dwelling cousins.

"The carbonate-based microbes breathed methane at roughly one-third the rate of those gathered from sediments near active seep sites," Marlow says. "However, because there are likely many more microbes living in carbonate mounds than in sediments, their contributions to methane removal from the environment may be more significant."

The rock samples that were harvested near supposedly dormant cold seeps also harbored microbial communities capable of consuming methane. "We were surprised to find that these marine microorganisms are still viable and, if exposed to methane, can continue to oxidize this greenhouse gas long after surface expressions of seepage have vanished." Orphan says.

Along with Orphan and Marlow, additional coauthors on the paper, "Carbonate-hosted methanotrophy represents an unrecognized methane sink in the deep sea," include former Caltech associate research scientist Joshua Steele, now at the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project; Wiebke Ziebis, an associate professor at the University of Southern California; Andrew Thurber, an assistant professor at Oregon State University; and Lisa Levin, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Funding for the study was provided by the National Science Foundation; NASA's Astrobiology Institute; the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation Marine Microbiology Initiative grant; and the National Research Council of the National Academies. 

Written by Ker Than

Ker Than
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