Stories of Medical Innovation

David Carroll Discusses Needs for Alternative Energy Technologies

The renowned physicist and nanotechnologist David L. Carroll, PhD, points to an assemblage of tubes and wires hanging on the wall of the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials at Wake Forest University. This unassuming object, which looks like a sixth grade science project, may just change the world, says Carroll.

“This could transform how we use the sun’s energy.”

The Hybrid Sterling Energy Generator (HySterE) solar panel, developed by Carroll’s research group, combines photovoltaic and thermal collection generators to absorb both visible light and thermal energy. These innovative panels can produce twice the number of kilowatt hours per day as a standard solar panel.

The HySterE panels solve a unique problem initially posed by the government of the Bahamas, which asked Carroll to develop solar panels that used recycled water bottles and could be assembled by non-skilled labor. Additionally, the Bahamian government wanted panels that could withstand the hurricane winds that sweep through the islands. Carroll designed the HySterE panels using 60 percent recycled material with an aerodynamic shape that causes them to cling tighter to roofs during high winds.

To demonstrate how the panel could be developed by non-skilled labor, Carroll recruited a group of middle school students at a local magnet school to build and install the initial prototype. FiberCell Inc., a Wake Forest spin-off company based in Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, licensed the fiber-based photovoltaic cell.

Carroll follows a similar model for all his projects. What he’s interested in creating are real-world solutions to difficult problems. “Every single project that goes on here has a practical end purpose in mind,” says Carroll.

A materials physicist by training, David Carroll directs the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials at Wake Forest University, which he moved from Clemson University in 2003. His group’s portfolio of innovative alternative energy solutions also includes Power Felt, a thermoelectric fabric that converts heat into usable energy (licensed to International ThermoDyne, LLC), and field-induced polymer electroluminescent (FIPELTM) lights, which are more energy-efficient than light-emitting diodes (LED) and less expensive to manufacture (licensed to CeeLiteTM Technologies).

Carroll believes that the crises caused by carbon dioxide emissions and global climate change demand innovative alternative energy solutions. “As the world’s population keeps expanding,” he says, “we cannot change our behavior quickly enough to counter this growth. We need a completely different way of thinking about energy.”

“The only hope we have is the development of green technologies,” says Carroll. “We’ve been given everything we need to solve our problems.”

Carroll and his research team at Wake Forest are committed to contributing new and innovative solutions to the world’s energy problem, but they need help, he says, to continue developing technologies that can change how the world generates energy.

Industry partnerships drive the discoveries in alternative energy research that may counteract the energy crises the world faces. Without such collaborations, discoveries like Carroll’s PowerFelt and FIPEL would not be developed and distributed to consumers around the world.

“Industry is essential,” Carroll says. “The technologies that we have now can lull us into a false sense of security, but competition in the marketplace can challenge these old guards. Companies willing to share risk with us to bring new energy technologies to the marketplace also share the potential for great rewards, both economical and ecological.”

Carroll believes that technology can answer the problems posed by energy and ecological crises; he developed the Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials to find those solutions. The HySterE panel – the one built by sixth graders – that hangs on one of the Center’s walls is testimony to this commitment.

“Over the last 20 years in the United States, we’ve sort of lost the whole idea of the inventor a little bit,” Carroll says. “A big part of what we do here is to try to say that the spirit of entrepreneurial science is alive and well.”

Contact Wake Forest Innovations to learn more about Carroll’s portfolio of technologies and research capabilities.