An image from the James Webb Space Telescope.

Webb Space Telescope reveals birth of galaxies, how universe became transparent

UCLA astrophysicists shed light on how hydrogen fog burned away after the Big Bang

An image from the James Webb Space Telescope

An image from the James Webb Space Telescope. A pair of UCLA-led studies demonstrate some of the scientific advances that the telescope is making possible. | NASA


Holly Ober | November 17, 2022

Key takeaways:
• UCLA astrophysicists are among the first scientists to use the James Webb Space Telescope to get a glimpse of the earliest galaxies in the universe.
• The studies reveal unprecedented detail about events that took place within the first billion years after the Big Bang.
• The UCLA projects were among a small number selected by NASA to test the capabilities of the Webb telescope.

The earliest galaxies were cosmic fireballs converting gas into stars at breathtaking speeds across their full extent, reports a UCLA-led study published in a special issue of the Astrophysical Journal.

The research, based on data from the James Webb Space Telescope, is the first study of the shape and structure of those galaxies. It shows that they were nothing like present-day galaxies in which star formation is confined to small regions, such as the constellation of Orion in our own Milky Way galaxy.

“We’re seeing galaxies form new stars at an electrifying pace,” said Tommaso Treu, the study’s lead author, a UCLA professor of physics and astronomy. “Webb’s incredible resolution allows us to study these galaxies in unprecedented detail, and we see all of this star formation occurring within the regions of these galaxies.”

Treu directs the GLASS–JWST Early Release Science Program, whose first results are the subject of the special journal issue. Another UCLA-led study in the issue found that galaxies that formed soon enough after the Big Bang — within less than a billion years — might have begun burning off leftover photon-absorbing hydrogen, bringing light to a dark universe.

“Even our very best telescopes really struggled to confirm the distances to such far away galaxies, so we didn’t know whether they rendered the universe transparent or not,” said Guido Roberts-Borsani, a UCLA postdoctoral researcher who led the study. “Webb is showing us that not only can it do the job, but it can do it with astonishing ease. It’s a game changer.”

Those findings are two of many breathtaking discoveries by UCLA astrophysicists who are among the first to peer through a window to the past newly opened by Webb.

Webb is the largest near-infrared telescope in space, and its remarkable resolution offers an unparalleled view of objects so distant that their light takes billions of years to reach Earth. Although those objects have aged by now, light from only their earliest moments has had enough time to travel through the universe to end up on Webb’s detectors. As a result, not only has the Webb functioned as a sort of time machine — taking scientists back to the period shortly after the Big Bang — but the images it’s producing have become a family album, with snapshots of infant galaxies and stars.

GLASS–JWST was one of 13 Early Release Science projects selected by NASA in 2017 to quickly produce publicly accessible datasets and to demonstrate and test the capabilities of instruments on the Webb.

The project seeks to understand how and when light from the first galaxies burned through the hydrogen fog left over from the Big Bang — a phenomenon and time period called the Epoch of Reionization — and how gas and heavy elements are distributed within and around galaxies over cosmic time. Treu and Roberts-Borsani use three of the Webb’s innovative near-infrared instruments to take detailed measurements of distant galaxies in the early universe.

The Epoch of Reionization is a period that remains poorly understood by scientists. Until now, researchers have not had the extremely sensitive infrared instruments needed to observe galaxies that existed then. Prior to cosmic reionization, the early universe remained devoid of light because ultraviolet photons from early stars were absorbed by the hydrogen atoms that saturated space.

Scientists think that sometime within the universe’s first billion years radiation emitted by the first galaxies and possibly by the first black holes caused the hydrogen atoms to lose electrons, or ionize, preventing photons from “sticking” to them and clearing a pathway for the photons to travel across space. As galaxies began to ionize larger and larger bubbles, the universe became transparent and light traveled freely, as it does today, allowing us to view a brilliant canopy of stars and galaxies each night.

Roberts-Borsani’s finding that galaxies formed faster and earlier than previously thought could confirm that they were the culprits of cosmic reionization. The study also confirms the distances to two of the farthest galaxies known using a new technique that allows astronomers to probe the beginning of cosmic reionization.


This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Dysmus+Kisilu+with+Tony+Pritzker+in+background

Dysmus Kisilu wins UCLA’s Pritzker Award for environmental innovators

Kenyan entrepreneur and his company, Solar Freeze, receive $100,000 prize for reducing food waste

Dysmus Kisilu speaking with Tony Pritzker in background

Dysmus Kisilu was honored for finding an environmentally friendly way to help small Kenyan farms preserve their produce in order to sell it during periods of peak demand. Tony Pritzker looked on while Kisilu spoke at the Nov. 10 award ceremony. | Damon Cirulli


David Colgan | November 11, 2022

Kenyan entrepreneur Dysmus Kisilu and his business, Solar Freeze, received the 2022 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award from the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability.

Kisilu’s company rents solar-powered coolers to reduce waste, curb carbon emissions and improve the marketability of crops on small, rural farms in Kenya. He was honored during a ceremony at the UCLA Meyer and Renee Luskin Conference Center on Nov. 10.

“To the smallholder farmers that I work with, this is for you,” Kisilu said.

The Pritzker Award, which is presented annually, carries a prize of $100,000 that is funded through a portion of a $20 million gift to UCLA from the Anthony and Jeanne Pritzker Family Foundation. It is the field’s first major honor specifically for innovators under the age of 40 — those whose work stands to benefit most from the prize money and the prestige it conveys.

Kisilu co-founded Solar Freeze in 2018, bringing solar-powered cold storage to small Kenyan farms — enabling them to reduce food waste without increasing carbon emissions. The storage units, which are made using old shipping containers, allow farmers to preserve perishable produce inexpensively, giving them leverage to sell harvests after times of peak production when they command higher prices, which can help maximize their profits.

The company aims to further its mission with a new mobile app and by expanding to other parts of Africa.

Kisilu was nominated by Jaime Carlson, a senior advisor in strategy and investment at Softbank Energy, a business that promotes the spread of renewable energy. Carlson said she was struck by how Kisilu “thinks deeply and thoughtfully” to create solutions that fit local communities and market conditions.

The Pritzker Award was launched in 2017, and for the first time since 2019, the presentation was held in person — the 2020 and 2021 events were streamed online due to the pandemic. The 2022 award celebration was kicked off earlier in the day by a series of discussions among UCLA experts and international environmental leaders.

Marilyn Raphael, director of UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, saluted Kisilu, the other nominees, and the other innovators and scholars who attended the award ceremony.

“You have already touched many lives, and what you do every day will touch lives and inspire environmental heroes for generations to come,” she said.

The other two finalists for the award were Resson Kantai Duff, a conservationist who fosters understanding and stewardship of nature in communities that live among lions; and Tiana Williams-Clausen, director of the Wildlife Department of the Yurok Tribe, who is helping to restore wildlife to Yurok lands around the Klamath River.

From left, Dysmus Kisilu with Marilyn Raphael of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Pritzker Award finalist Tiana Williams-Clausen and Tony Pritzker at the 2022 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award ceremony.

From left, Dysmus Kisilu with Marilyn Raphael of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability, Pritzker Award finalist Tiana Williams-Clausen and Tony Pritzker at the 2022 Pritzker Emerging Environmental Genius Award ceremony. | Damon Cirulli


The distinguished panel of judges who chose Kisilu as this year’s winner was made up of Kara Hurst, head of worldwide sustainability at Amazon; Chanell Fletcher, deputy executive officer of environmental justice at the California Air Resources Board; Lori Garver, CEO of the Earthrise Media; and Ida Levine, lead expert on policy and regulation for the board of Impact Investing Institute.

Kisilu’s honor was presented by Tony Pritzker, who founded the award and is a member of the Institute of the Environment and Sustainability’s advisory board.

“The objective of all this is to honor you at such a great point in your lives — giving you the opportunity to take it to the next level,” Pritzker said.


This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Miguel García-Garibay in the Royce Hall portico

Miguel García-Garibay appointed senior dean of UCLA College

The longtime faculty member will continue to lead the division of physical sciences

Miguel García-Garibay

UCLA Newsroom | November 1, 2022

Miguel García-Garibay, dean of physical sciences, has been appointed senior dean of the UCLA College, UCLA Executive Vice Chancellor and Provost Darnell Hunt announced. García-Garibay’s two-year term begins today, as current senior dean David Schaberg steps down.

The five deans of the UCLA College lead their respective divisions — physical sciences, life sciences, social sciences, humanities and undergraduate education — and share responsibility for college-wide issues and functions. García-Garibay will continue in his role as physical sciences dean, and as senior dean will be responsible for coordinating planning, budgeting, activities and decisions related to staffing, policies and development across the college. He will also represent the college at meetings and events on campus, systemwide and externally.

García-Garibay joined the UCLA chemistry and biochemistry faculty in 1992 and became dean of physical sciences in 2016. As dean, he has provided thoughtful and strategic leadership and developed a culture of cooperation and inclusion. Over the past six years, he has expanded the division’s academic offerings, led multiple collaborations in research and inclusive teaching, invested in the student experience, and had great success in recruiting and retaining exceptional faculty.

“Chancellor Block and I look forward to working with Dean García-Garibay in this additional role for the benefit of the college and UCLA as a whole,” Hunt said.


This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

Person wiping sweat off brow

Are extreme heat waves happening more than expected? UCLA research says not yet.

The temperatures that baked the Pacific Northwest in 2021 should happen roughly once in 10,000 years

Person wiping sweat off brow

“The 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave appears to be the result of climate change and extraordinarily bad luck with natural variability,” says UCLA’s Karen McKinnon. | Ketut Subiyanto/Pexels


Alison Hewitt | September 28, 2022

Key takeaways:
• A freak heat wave. Climate modeling suggests the extreme 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave was roughly a once-in-10,000-years event.
• Climate change link. The heat wave was warmer, and more likely to happen, because of climate change.
• Bad luck. This was an unfortunate combination of nature and climate change, not a sign that extreme heat waves are happening more than predicted.

When the 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave peaked at 121 degrees Fahrenheit, it buckled roads, melted power lines, killed hundreds and led to a devastating wildfire. Climate scientists were shocked to see heat so severe.

New research by climate scientist and statistician Karen McKinnon shows the scientific community was right to be stunned. The 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave was roughly a once-in-10,000-years­­ kind of event, the UCLA study found.

“It was outrageous how extreme and severe that heat wave was,” said McKinnon, an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences, who is also part of the UCLA Institute of the Environment and Sustainability. “Climate models struggle to capture events this extreme, and most early research puts the chances of it occurring at zero.”

The study appears in the Sept. 28 issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters. McKinnon, who is also an assistant professor of statistics in the UCLA College, set out to determine two things:

  • whether climate models could establish the probability of such an extraordinary heat wave;
  • whether the extreme heat was a sign that the probability of extreme heat waves is increasing faster than expected.

To find the answers, the researchers analyzed historical trends at weather stations in Washington, Oregon and British Columbia and reviewed climate model simulations. By grouping together international locations that are climatologically similar to the Pacific Northwest, the study found that climate models could simulate heat waves comparable to the 2021 event with a probability of them occurring roughly once every 10,000 years. In cities that experienced the most extreme temperatures during the heat wave, the probability plunged to once every 100,000 years.

Washington state high temperatures map June 28, 21

Temperatures from June 28, 2021, were extremely unusual for the area around Seattle, Washington. | United States National Weather Service


They also found that climate change is increasing heat waves and average summer temperatures at the same pace – so far.

“We don’t see historical evidence of hot temperatures increasing faster than average temperatures during the early summertime when the heatwave occurred,” said McKinnon said. “The 2021 Pacific Northwest heat wave appears to be the result of climate change and extraordinarily bad luck with natural variability.”

The researchers used similar regions to expand their data set, including places like coastal Alaska, all of British Columbia, Canada, and Nordic countries. The regions are in the same northern latitude, generally on the western coasts of continents. They also form heat waves in response to stagnant high-pressure systems, and have similar local climate profiles of positive “skewness” — a lopsided temperature distribution curve with generally mild weather but a history of rare but higher-temperature heat waves.

The researchers analyzed 50 climate model simulations from 1850 through 2100 using a climate model known as Community Earth System Model 2, or CESM2, maintained by the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The simulations assume greenhouse gasses double from current levels by 2100, a plausible emissions future developed by the United Nations’ climate committee and known as SSP3-7.0.

In the simulations, events on par with the Pacific Northwest heat wave were the largest event in 10,000 years of data.

“The good news is that we don’t find evidence that events this extreme should start happening regularly,” McKinnon said. “The bad news is the summer of 2022 brought record-breaking heat waves everywhere from the United Kingdom to China to California. We need to continue evaluating whether these very extreme events are telling us something new about how the climate is changing, and whether they confirm or refute our latest findings.”

McKinnon said that she doesn’t anticipate finding that extreme events are warming faster than average temperatures, but noted that “if 10,000-year events keep happening, that suggests there may be something missing in the climate model we used.” But even if the probability of extreme events keeps perfect pace with average climate change, that’s not good news, McKinnon said.

“If everything’s moving with mean climate change, that can sound like it’s not so bad,” she said, “but look at the severe impacts of the climate change we’re already experiencing.”

That’s part of what drives McKinnon to continue studying large-scale climate variability and climate extremes, as she seeks to understand what’s in store.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Packard Foundation.


This article originally appeared in the UCLA Newsroom. For more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

First underground radar images from Mars Perseverance Rover reveal some surprises

Unexpectedly tilted rock layers in the Jezero crater hint at a complex geological history

Image of Jezero crater delta

Aerial photo of the remains of a delta where a water source once fed an ancient lake at the Jezero crater. NASA’s Perseverance Rover is currently exploring the area. | NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU


Holly Ober | August 25, 2022

Key takeaways:

• Roving the Red Planet. NASA’s Perseverance landed on Mars in February 2021 and has been gathering data on the planet’s geology and climate and searching for signs of ancient life.
• What lies beneath. The rover’s subsurface radar experiment, co-led by UCLA’s David Paige, has returned images showing unexpected variations in rock layers beneath the Jezero crater.
• Probing the past. The variations could indicate past lava flows or possibly a river delta even older than the one currently being explored on the crater floor.

After a tantalizing year-and-a-half wait since the Mars Perseverance Rover touched down on our nearest planetary neighbor, new data is arriving — and bringing with it a few surprises.

The rover, which is about the size of car and carries seven scientific instruments, has been probing Mars’ 30-mile-wide Jezero crater, once the site of a lake and an ideal spot to search for evidence of ancient life and information about the planet’s geological and climatic past.

In a paper published today in the journal Science Advances, a research team led by UCLA and the University of Oslo reveals that rock layers beneath the crater’s floor, observed by the rover’s ground-penetrating radar instrument, are unexpectedly inclined. The slopes, thicknesses and shapes of the inclined sections suggest they were either formed by slowly cooling lava or deposited as sediments in the former lake.

Image of RIMFAX subsurface readings

Top: Path of the Perseverance Rover through the Jezero crater. Middle: Subsurface radar image obtained by RIMFAX. Bottom: Diagram indicating where unexpectedly inclined rock layers were located. | Hamran et. al., 2022


Perseverance is currently exploring a delta on the western edge of the crater, where a river once fed the lake, leaving behind a large deposit of dirt and rocks it picked up along its course. As the rover gathers more data, the researchers hope to clear up the complex history of this part of the Red Planet.

“We were quite surprised to find rocks stacked up at an inclined angle,” said David Paige, a UCLA professor of Earth, planetary and space sciences and one of the lead researchers on the Radar Imager for Mars Subsurface Experiment, or RIMFAX. “We were expecting to see horizontal rocks on the crater floor. The fact that they are tilted like this requires a more complex geologic history. They could have been formed when molten rock rose up towards the surface, or, alternatively, they could represent an older delta deposit buried in the crater floor.”

Image of David Paige

David Paige, deputy principal investigator for Perseverance’s RIMFAX instrument. | Courtesy of David Paige

Paige said that most of the evidence gathered by the rover so far points to an igneous, or molten, origin, but based on the RIMFAX data, he and the team can’t yet say for certain how the inclined layers formed. RIMFAX obtains a picture of underground features by sending bursts of radar waves below the surface, which are reflected by rock layers and other obstacles. The shapes, densities, thicknesses, angles and compositions of underground objects affect how the radar waves bounce back, creating a visual image of what lies beneath.

During Perseverance’s initial 3-kilometer traverse, the instrument has obtained a continuous radar image that reveals the electromagnetic properties and bedrock stratigraphy — the arrangement of rock layers — of Jezero’s floor to depths of 15 meters, or about 49 feet. The image reveals the presence of ubiquitous layered rock strata, including those that are inclined at up to 15 degrees. Compounding the mystery, within those inclined areas are some perplexing highly reflective rock layers that in fact tilt in multiple directions.

“RIMFAX is giving us a view of Mars stratigraphy similar to what you can see on Earth in highway road cuts, where tall stacks of rock layers are sometimes visible in a mountainside as you drive by,” Paige explained. “Before Perseverance landed, there were many hypotheses about the exact nature and origin of the crater floor materials. We’ve now been able to narrow down the range of possibilities, but the data we’ve acquired so far suggest that the history of the crater floor may be quite a bit more complicated than we had anticipated.”

Rendering of Perseverance, whose RIMFAX technology is exploring what lies beneath the Martian surface.

Rendering of Perseverance, whose RIMFAX technology is exploring what lies beneath the Martian surface. | NASA/JPL/Caltech/FFI


The data collected by RIMFAX will provide valuable context to rock samples Perseverance is collecting, which will eventually be brought back to Earth.

“RIMFAX is giving us the backstory of the samples we’re going to analyze. It’s exciting that the rover’s instruments are producing data and we’re starting to learn, but there’s a lot more to come,” Paige said. “We landed on the crater floor, but now we’re driving up on the actual delta, which is the main target of the mission. This is just the beginning of what we’ll hopefully soon know about Mars.”

The paper, “Ground penetrating radar observations of subsurface structures in the floor of Jezero crater, Mars,” is one of three simultaneously published papers discussing some of the first data from Perseverance.

This article originally appeared in the UCLA NewsroomFor more news and updates from the UCLA College, visit college.ucla.edu/news.

A photo of Mars and Venus.

New Insights into Mars and Venus

 

By Christopher Crockett and Stuart Wolpert

 

David Paige is deputy principal investigator of Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Experiment, or RIMFAX, one of seven instruments on NASA’s Perseverance rover.

About the size of a car, the Perseverance rover landed on Mars on Feb. 18. Over the next two years it will explore Jezero Crater in Mars’ northern hemisphere for signs of ancient life and new clues about the planet’s climate and geology.

Among other tasks, Perseverance will collect rock and soil samples in tubes that a later spacecraft will bring back to Earth. The experiments will lay the groundwork for future human and robotic exploration of Mars. RIMFAX will probe beneath the planet’s surface to study its geology in detail.

“Jezero Crater is a very interesting location on Mars because it looks like there was once a lake inside the crater, and that a river flowed into the lake and deposited sediments in a delta,” Paige said. “We plan to explore the delta to learn more about Mars’ climate history, and maybe something about ancient Martian life. What we’ll be able to see once we start roving and what we will actually learn is anybody’s guess.”

RIMFAX will provide a highly detailed view of subsurface structures and help find clues to past environments on Mars, including those that may have provided the conditions necessary for sup-porting life, he said.

Paige emphasized that RIMFAX is an experiment. “We’ve never tried using a ground-penetrating radar on Mars before, so we can’t really predict what types of subsurface structures we might be able to see. But we have done some fairly extensive field testing of RIMFAX on Earth to learn how to use it and how to interpret the data. Here, ground-penetrating radars can be very useful for clarifying subsurface geology.”

Is he hopeful of finding water, or evidence of water, beneath the planet’s surface?

“There are all kinds of evidence for past liquid water all over Mars,” Paige said. “At Jezero, there must have been a lot of water at some point, but we don’t expect that the ground beneath the rover will still be wet. Mars today is a very cold place, and any water in the shallow subsurface should be frozen at Jezero. What we’re interested in finding are geologic features that wouldn’t be expected to form under present climatic conditions, as those would be especially interesting targets to search for signs of past life.”

UCLA College graduate students Max Parks and Tyler Powell in Earth, Planetary, and Space Sciences are part of the science team, and Mark Nasielski, a UCLA graduate student in electrical engineering, is part of the operations team.

VENUS IS AN ENIGMA

Venus is the planet next door yet reveals little about itself. An opaque blanket of clouds smothers a harsh landscape pelted by acid rain and baked at temperatures that can liquify lead.

Now, new observations from the safety of Earth are lifting the veil on some of Venus’ most basic properties. By repeatedly bouncing radar off the planet’s surface over the last 15 years, a UCLA-led team has pinned down the precise length of a day on Venus, the tilt of its axis and the size of its core — findings published in the journal Nature Astronomy.

“Venus is our sister planet, and yet these fundamental properties have remained unknown,” said professor Jean-Luc Margot, who led the research.

Earth and Venus have a lot in common: Both are rocky planets and have nearly the same size, mass and density. And yet they evolved along wildly different paths. Fundamentals such as how many hours are in a Venusian day provide critical data for understanding the divergent histories of these neighboring worlds.

Changes in Venus’ spin and orientation reveal how mass is spread out within. Knowledge of its internal structure, in turn, fuels insight into the planet’s formation, its volcanic history and how time has altered the surface. Plus, without precise data on how the planet spins, any future landing attempts could be off by as much as 30 kilometers.

The new radar measurements show that an average day on Venus lasts 243.0226 Earth days — roughly two-thirds of an Earth year. What’s more, the rotation rate of Venus is always changing: A value measured at one time will be a bit larger or smaller than a previous value. The team estimated the length of a day from each of the individual measurements, and they observed differences of at least 20 minutes.

Venus’ heavy atmosphere is likely to blame for the variation.

The UCLA-led team also reports that Venus tips to one side by precisely 2.6392 degrees (Earth is tilted by about 23 degrees), an improvement on the precision of previous estimates by a factor of 10. The repeated radar measurements further revealed the glacial rate at which the orientation of Venus’ spin axis changes, much like a spinning top. On Earth, this “precession” takes about 26,000 years to cycle around once. Venus needs a little longer: about 29,000 years.

The team has turned its sights on Jupiter’s moons Europa and Ganymede. Many researchers strongly suspect that Europa hides a liquid water ocean beneath a thick shell of ice. Ground-based radar measurements could fortify the case for an ocean and reveal the thickness of the ice shell.

And the team will continue bouncing radar off Venus. With each radio echo, the veil over Venus lifts a little bit more, bringing our sister planet into ever sharper view.

This research was supported by NASA, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the National Science Foundation.

 

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Photo of Richard Kaner, with Maher El-Kady, holding a replica of an energy storage and conversion device the pair developed.

Creating electricity from snowfall and making hydrogen cars affordable

Photo of Richard Kaner, with Maher El-Kady, holding a replica of an energy storage and conversion device the pair developed.

Richard Kaner, with Maher El-Kady, holding a replica of an energy storage and conversion device the pair developed. Photo credit: Reed Hutchinson

Professor Richard Kaner and researcher Maher El-Kady have designed a series of remarkable devices. Their newest one creates electricity from falling snow. The first of its kind, this device is inexpensive, small, thin and flexible like a sheet of plastic.

“The device can work in remote areas because it provides its own power and does not need batteries,” said Kaner, the senior author who holds the Dr. Myung Ki Hong Endowed Chair in Materials Innovation.“It’s a very clever device — a weather station that can tell you how much snow is falling, the direction the snow is falling and the direction and speed of the wind.”

The researchers call it a snow-based triboelectric nanogenerator, or snow TENG. Findings about the device are published in the journal Nano Energy.

The device generates charge through static electricity. Static electricity occurs when you rub fur and a piece of nylon together and create a spark, or when you rub your feet on a carpet and touch a doorknob.

“Static electricity occurs from the interaction of one material that captures electrons and another that gives up electrons,” said Kaner, who is also a distinguished professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and of materials science and engineering, and a member of the California NanoSystems Institute at UCLA. “You separate the charges and create electricity out of essentially nothing.”

Snow is positively charged and gives up electrons. Silicone — a synthetic rubber-like material that is composed of silicon atoms and oxygen atoms, combined with carbon, hydrogen and other elements — is negatively charged. When falling snow contacts the surface of silicone, that produces a charge that the device captures, creating electricity.

“Snow is already charged, so we thought, why not bring another material with the opposite charge and extract the charge to create electricity?” said El-Kady, assistant researcher of chemistry and biochemistry.

“After testing a large number of materials including aluminum foils and Teflon, we found that silicone produces more charge than any other material,” he said.

Approximately 30 percent of the Earth’s surface is covered by snow each winter, El-Kady noted, during which time solar panels often fail to operate. The accumulation of snow reduces the amount of sunlight that reaches the solar array, limiting their power output and rendering them less effective. The new device could be integrated into solar panels to provide a continuous power supply when it snows.

The device can be used for monitoring winter sports, such as skiing, to more precisely assess and improve an athlete’s performance when running, walking or jumping, Kaner said. It could usher in a new generation of self-powered wearable devices for tracking athletes and their performances. It can also send signals, indicating whether a person is moving.

The research team used 3-D printing to design the device, which has a layer of silicone and an electrode to capture the charge. The team believes the device could be produced at low cost given “the ease of fabrication and the availability of silicone,” Kaner said.

New device can create and store energy

Kaner, El-Kady and colleagues designed a device in 2017 that can use solar energy to inexpensively and efficiently create and store energy, which could be used to power electronic devices, and to create hydrogen fuel for eco-friendly cars.

The device could make hydrogen cars affordable for many more consumers because it produces hydrogen using nickel, iron and cobalt — elements that are much more abundant and less expensive than the platinum and other precious metals that are currently used to produce hydrogen fuel.

“Hydrogen is a great fuel for vehicles: It is the cleanest fuel known, it’s cheap and it puts no pollutants into the air — just water,” Kaner said. “And this could dramatically lower the cost of hydrogen cars.”

The technology could be part of a solution for large cities that need ways to store surplus electricity from their electrical grids. “If you could convert electricity to hydrogen, you could store it indefinitely,” Kaner said.

Kaner is among the world’s most influential and highly cited scientific researchers. He has also been selected as the recipient of the  American Institute of Chemists 2019 Chemical Pioneer Award, which honors chemists and chemical engineers who have made outstanding contributions that advance the science of chemistry or greatly impact the chemical profession.

Co-authors on the snow TENG work include Abdelsalam Ahmed, who conducted the research while completing his Ph.D. at the University of Toronto, and Islam Hassan and Ravi Selvaganapathy at Canada’s McMaster University, as well as James Rusling, who is the Paul Krenicki professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut, and his research team.

More devices designed to solve pressing problems

Last year, Kaner and El-Kady published research on their design of the first fire-retardant, self-extinguishing motion sensor and power generator, which could be embedded in shoes or clothing worn by firefighters and others who work in harsh environments.

Kaner’s lab produced a separation membrane that separates oil from water and cleans up the debris left by oil fracking. The separation membrane is currently in more than 100 oil installations worldwide. Kaner conducted this work with Eric Hoek, professor of civil and environmental engineering.