Light as Fuel for Space Travel with Harry Atwater

Professor Harry Atwater is on a hot pursuit to harness light as fuel for space travel. With fundamental properties like speed and ubiquity, light is a natural resource with vast potential.

On May 7, materials scientists, chemists and physicists from BU and other local universities attended the 2019 Saint-Gobain Materials Science Lecture with special guest Prof. Atwater who gave a talk on “Light as Fuel.”

This event was organized by BU Division of Materials Science and Engineering as part of an annual corporate sponsored series to advance the field of materials engineering.  The 2019 event was co-sponsored by Saint-Gobain, a global company that produces a variety of construction and high-performance materials. The Boston branch is housed in North Attleborough and employs around 400 researchers ranging from materials scientists and electrical engineers to physicists and chemists. MSE Associate Head and Chemistry Chairperson Professor Lawrence Ziegler hosted the event. Dr. Julia Dicorleto, Saint-Gobain Research North America Director, introduced Harry Atwater in a talk titled ‘Saint-Gobain: Materials that Power Life.’ 

As the top scientist in a new field of study, California Institute of Technology Professor Harry Atwater is recognized for coining the field of plasmonics. Now, he leads an interdisciplinary team in a mission to transform sunlight into chemical fuel.

“[light] is the most abundant power source,” he says “and it generates all the other power sources.”

To achieve interstellar travel, star light is the only sustainable fuel that’s capable of propelling a spacecraft.

“If we can do this, this would actually give us a way not to have to return to a hunter-gatherer or subsistence lifestyle, in terms of our energy intensity,” said Atwater. 

College of Engineering Students and faculties gather in the Light as Fuel lecture on Tuesday, May 7, 2019.

Atwater challenges the students to address some of the biggest concerns hampering the development of new sustainable energy resources: energy storage and infrastructure costs.

By advancing light energy, the global community is advancing the possibility of interstellar exploration. Understanding how to harness light will be the foundation to build the next chapter of space exploration, according to Atwater.