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What may be viewed as the world's smallest incandescent lightbulb is shining in a Rice University engineering laboratory with the promise of advances in sensing, photonics and perhaps computing platforms beyond the limitations of silicon.
Gururaj Naik of Rice's Brown School of Engineering and graduate student Chloe Doiron have assembled unconventional "selective thermal emitters"—collections of near-nanoscale materials that absorb heat and emit light.
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Their research, reported in Advanced Materials, one-ups a recent technique developed by the lab that uses carbon nanotubes to channel heat from mid-infrared radiation to improve the efficiency of solar energy systems.
The new strategy combines several known phenomena into a unique configuration that also turns heat into light—but in this case, the system is highly configurable.
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Basically, Naik said, the researchers made an incandescent light source by breaking down a one-element system—the glowing filament in a bulb—into two or more subunits. Mixing and matching the subunits could give the system a variety of capabilities.
"The previous paper was all about making solar cells more efficient," said Naik, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering. "This time, the breakthrough is more in the science than the application. Basically, our goal was to build a nanoscale thermal light source with specific properties, like emitting at a certain wavelength, or emitting extremely bright or new thermal light states.
People - Source - Element - Source - Elements
"Previously, people thought of a light source as just one element and tried to get the best out of it," he said. "But we break the source into many tiny elements. We put sub-elements together in such a fashion that they interact with each other. One element may give brightness; the next element could be tuned to provide wavelength specificity. We share the burden among many small parts.
"The idea is to rely upon collective behavior, not just a single element," Naik said. "Breaking the filament into...
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