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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/T007214/1
Title: Quantum Bio-inspired Energy harvesting (QuBE)
Principal Investigator: Gauger, Dr EM
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Massachusetts Institute of Technology University of Oxford University of Sydney
Department: Sch of Engineering and Physical Science
Organisation: Heriot-Watt University
Scheme: New Investigator Award
Starts: 01 January 2020 Ends: 31 December 2022 Value (£): 358,171
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Condensed Matter Physics Light-Matter Interactions
Materials Characterisation Quantum Optics & Information
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Education
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
24 Jul 2019 EPSRC Physical Sciences - July 2019 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
The central hypothesis of this project is that biological inspiration combined with engineering at the microscopic scale, where quantum effects dominate, will enable new kinds of nano-antennae for applications in photovoltaics, optical sensing and power transfer. Unlocking sustainable sources of energy is a major challenge faced by society: increasing global energy needs and rising carbon dioxide levels have led to concerns about fossil fuels which are our current principal source of power. Not only are fossil fuels a fast-dwindling resource, their consumption is also believed to have a highly negative impact on our climate.

Sunlight, despite being abundant and free, only constitutes a relatively minor fraction in our energy mix, with the widespread uptake of light-harvesting technologies being hampered by their relatively high cost and the limited flexibility of existing photovoltaic technologies. Meanwhile, sunlight is Nature's power source: it directly or indirectly sustains almost all life of Earth. Nature has optimised biological structures over hundreds of millions of years to produce finely tuned and highly efficient solutions for the energy capture, conversion, storage, and delivery within living organisms.

On the atomic and molecular scale, energy is `quantised': it only occurs in tiny chunks, for example as the energy of a photon of light emitted from an excited atom. The most efficient way to capture, transport and convert energy will thus exploit our best understanding of the relevant physics, i.e. quantum theory. Indeed, there is now strong evidence that quantum effects are to some degree present in natural photosynthesis, raising the tantalising possibility that they may even play a functional role in the process. This motivates the study of quantum-enhanced artificial light-harvesting as a potential solution to the energy problem.

This project therefore aims to combine the state-of-the-art in controlling and designing quantum-engineered condensed matter nanostructures with inspiration from Nature's toolbox of proven and robust design principles for photosynthesis. Motivated by the aim to develop blueprints for the next generation of sustainable energy harvesting technologies, it will focus on designing novel kind of antennae which feature non-classical, quantum-enhanced performance. The core underlying scientific challenge is to develop the theory that allows us to understand, engineer, and control the interplay between quantum behaviour (wave-like interference and superposition states) and the more destructive process of exchanging energy with the wider surroundings through unavoidable physical interactions. When both these aspects govern the behaviour of collections of interacting nanostructures - either complex molecules or artificial semiconductor structures - this opens a rich playground of physical effects situated squarely between the quantum and the classical world. This is the regime in which natural photosynthesis operates, and the aim of this project is to find ways of replicating and possibly even surpassing Nature's performance in the crucial first step of irreversibly capturing energy from light.

Besides laying scientific groundwork for new kinds of bio-inspired cheap and flexible photovoltaics, this project will further our fundamental understanding of light-matter interactions of relevance for a range of other applications. More broadly, this project fits into the exciting scientific endeavour of understanding and controlling Nature at the quantum level. This is one of the great scientific challenges of the coming decades, with the potential to transform the technologies we use in our everyday lives. Currently the potential of quantum effects for practical applications is limited to processing data, transmitting information, and exquisite sensing. This project may be a step towards enabling new ways of generating clean energy.
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Organisation Website: http://www.hw.ac.uk