Transformative Energies

Harry Atwater specializes in transformations. As director of Caltech’s Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP), he is leading a clean energy project dedicated to mimicking photosynthesis to create useful fuels. Or, as President Barack Obama described it in his 2011 State of the Union address: “At Caltech, they're developing a way to turn sunlight and water into fuel for our cars.”

JCAP is now the largest program of its kind, uniting Caltech scientists and engineers with collaborators from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, UC Irvine, UC San Diego, and SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory. But the transformation from an idea to an enterprise of this size began, in part, with private funding. Seed money from Gordon and Betty Moore and the Moore Foundation helped create the Caltech Center for Sustainable Energy Research. That original philanthropic investment of $5 million led to advances that attracted more than $100 million in additional federal and private funding—including a $30 million gift from Stewart and Lynda Resnick. Such gifts helped position Caltech as a leading institution for breakthroughs in solar and renewable energy.

While philanthropy is vital to jumpstarting progress in major initiatives, it is also pivotal for graduate students. Fellowship support transforms a grad student’s experience at Caltech into an opportunity to drive novel research and change the conversation—about renewable energy or whatever next-horizon challenge is still to come.

“Having the resources for fellowship support unburdens students; it invites them to explore the landscape of science,” says Atwater, the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science. “It’s tremendously satisfying to see your students and postdocs really contributing at the frontiers of the field—and, in some cases, starting out in completely new ones.”

Case in point: Michelle Sherrott, a graduate student in Atwater’s lab and fellow of the Resnick Sustainability Institute at Caltech.

“Having the resources for fellowship support unburdens students. It invites them to explore the landscape of science.”
- Harry Atwater

Sherrott is an example of just how far internal fellowship support can take an idea. Traditionally, two-dimensional materials are not good at absorbing light. Focusing primarily on graphene and monolayer semiconductors, Sherrott has developed a way to increase the light absorption of two-dimensional materials, with promise for application in future solar cells and photocatalysts. This could mean reimagining the future of sustainable infrastructure, one where the heat absorbed and radiated from a building could be managed actively and thus put to work controlling that same building’s temperature.

“The Resnick Institute provides a foundation for transformative energy research and puts the resources directly into the hands of the graduate students,” Atwater says. “Michelle took the lead on this new area, and it’s led to a whole new scientific direction for light-matter interactions that we didn’t anticipate at the onset.”

Giving Priorities