Einstein Lecture: Harness the Sun

Alan Heeger (on left) charmed the eager audience at the Princeton Chamber’s Albert Einstein Memorial Lecture yesterday at Princeton University’s Robertson Hall. The 2000 winner of the Nobel Prize in chemistry, whose lab is in Santa Barbara, told how to turn the dream of low cost plastic solar cells into reality: “We receive on earth in one hour enough energy to take care of the needs of the planet for a year. The question is how to use it. We need to decrease the cost by at least a factor of five.”

I’m not going to try to explain “self assembly of bulk heterojunction nano materials by spontaneous phase separation” even though Heeger was so clear that I almost understood it at the time. Afterward, Aaron Wadell offered to go over it with me. As COO of Global Photonic Energy Corporation, a spinoff of Universal Display, he works in this space. Thanks, but no thanks, Aaron. There is a limit to what I will write for free.

As an aside, Heeger noted that the very word “photon” was coined by Einstein. And the first time Heeger referred to images taken by the electron microscope, I got a sudden twinge and looked over to Bob Hillier, sitting in the fourth row on the center aisle. Hillier’s father invented the electron microscope, and I thought again about how, here in Princeton, great accomplishments are commonplace. Just five days ago I was sitting in this room listening to the CEO of Google, interviewed by Princeton’s cyberspace guru, Ed Felten.

The “money” question came from Michael Hierl. Heeger said that throwing money at the problem might not speed up the process of commercializing plastic solar cell technology. Konarka Technologies (the former Polaroid facility, now converted to making the thin film) “has been able to raise the necessary funds.” (Since a family member is an expert in film manufacturing technology, I was intrigued when Heeger said that the soon to be defunct Kodak film plants can be converted into thin film production.)

Re money, “in my lab I’m not too worried,” said Heeger, adding, “my real concern is the public’s attitude toward fuel consumption. We should not be burning oil. Instead, “we should use it to make high value products.”

The sponsor roster for the lecture, in addition to the Princeton Regional Chamber Foundation, reveals who still has money to contribute to something like this: a construction firm (Bovis Lend Lease) an energy company (NRG), a chemical firm (Firmenich), and two pharmas, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Ortho-McNeil-Janssen. (Though Heebink’s topic was energy, he also co-founded Cynvenio, which does micro fluidics for cell sorting, and Cytomx Therapeutics, a drug delivery firm.) Plus Greg Olsen’s investment firm. GHO, and his former imaging company, Goodrich ISR Systems.

Guys who do high tech business development were out in force and Paula Durand, technology & life sciences venture officer of the ubiqitous New Jersey Economic Development Authority, was on the front row. (See photos).

Saying he is confident of early prospects for success, Heeger cited another Nobel winner, Richard Feynman, (roughly quoted): “All the molecules in my brain are different from six months ago when I saw you last, but I still know who you are.” It’s the structure of the brain that counts. “It’s the network structure that is stable. That gives me confidence that (in our life time) we can (do this).”


One thought on “Einstein Lecture: Harness the Sun

  1. This was a fantastic Princeton lecture!! It was a real honor just to be able to attend and listen to Alan’s overview of the new cells. His presentation style was a great tribute to Einstein -public, approachable, physics-relevant, casual and highly intelligent! Attendance was great! I can’t wait to see how this new solar cell approach develops! VH

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