What's This High-Risk Science Funder Up To Now? Boosting the Power of Light

The latest example of the Keck Foundation’s high-risk research funding is a project that would take weakling red light and transform it into beefy blue light. The early-stage research could make solar cells more powerful and has possible medical applications. 

The W.M. Keck Foundation is among the top 10 science and technology funders in the country, and it leans toward work in early stages, with the hope of igniting new ideas with a lot of potential.  


One recent grant is a cool example of this kind of work, which is being counducted by researchers at the University of Delaware who are monkeying with light at the photon level to put its energy to better use. Different colored photons, units of light, hold different levels of energy, with red photons too low in energy to be absorbed by solar panels, for example. The subject of a $1 million grant, work led by Matthew Doty would pair multiple weakly colored photons (like red) together to form one high-energy photon (blue or green) that can be put to use.

This process isn’t new, but the team is using a novel approach to smooshing the two or more photons together, potentially vastly improving the efficiency with which we can take advantage of the energy carried by light.

The secret ingredient, in theory, is creating new nanostructures so small they can only be viewed when magnified a million times. The team is basically sculpting at an extremely tiny scale, creating semiconducting materials, layers of single atoms at a time. The resulting materials could channel incoming light into customized levels of potential energy, to be used in various applications.

Why did Keck go for this project? Even though the work is high-risk and early in the process—Doty says they don’t yet have proof-of-concept data—if they can pull it off, the benefits are significant. The foundation wants to see far-reaching benefits to humanity, but is willing to get in on fledging ideas, and then watch them unfold.

For example, the University of Delaware team estimates their nanostructures could raise solar pane efficiency up to 30 percent, basically sucking up more of the energy in sunlight that otherwise just passes right through and lost. And like many nanotechnology applications, there are potential medical benefits. The team is exploring the idea of creating nanoparticles that can release drug treatments deep inside human tissue, activated by harmless light. 

In this way, the project also straddles two of Keck’s big interests: science and engineering, and medical research. The foundation has assets of about $1.24 billion, and last year, paid out nearly $60 million in grants, a big portion of which goes to these two research causes. Other Keck programs are undergraduate education and Southern California.

Related: The Philanthropy of Stargazing: We're In a New Golden Age of Mega Telescope Projects

Keck is probably best known as a major funder of telescopes, including W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii. But over its 60 years, it’s backed lots of interesting work, things like scar-free wounds, brain-to-brain interfacing, and a lot of genetic research. Projects usually receive a million or two each. 

This particular area of materials research is hot right now, including with another major science funder, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation. Moore has a subprogram, EPiQS, which funds development of new materials with superconducting properties, and other big projects with long-term payoffs.

Related: Moore’s Flexible Pot of Funds Aims to Accelerate an Entire Field