A true believer in the amazing potential of solar power, Joe Reczek, assistant professor of chemistry, is tireless when it comes to devising ways to demonstrate how we can harness the energy of the sun. His newest outreach project, funded by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, is an ingenious contraption that he designed for The Works museum courtyard in Newark. It levitates a tennis ball—and can even shoot one out of a cannon—using only sunlight.
The whole setup seems simple, but the results are pretty impressive. Reczek and his collaborators wired a solar panel array to two blower motors, so that when the sun shines on the panels, the blowers rev up and a tennis ball floats in a long, clear plastic tube. (Or can be fired out of a “cannon.”)
It’s also real-time responsive. Pick up a wooden “cloud” and hold it in front of the panels, and you’ll see the ball immediately drop in the tube, demonstrating in an interactive way how sunlight is directly powering the motors.
[custom-field name=”aside” cssclass=”right-aside”]The need for solar education is compelling for Reczek. Though the exhibition itself is an engaging example of the power of the sun, he also created two information panels that tell more of the story. “Of course I’m a strong proponent for solar power, but I made everything as agenda-less as possible,” he said.
The panels articulate definitions of energy, list many of its different sources, provide a few statistics about solar energy, (Did you know that a single hour of sunlight that hits the earth holds more energy than we use in an entire year?) and, of course, since Reczek is a chemist, they explain the chemistry of making solar panels and how they work.
“The Solar Exhibit has been a fabulous addition to The Works courtyard, and the solar cannon is a huge hit every time it comes out,” said Rori Leach, museum education director for The Works. “A small child was watching Joe launch balls from the cannon. When I asked him where he thought the power to launch the balls came from, he stopped, contemplated, and said very excitedly, “THE SUN!” It was great to see it all click together for that child.”
Reczek’s passion for solar power also drives his research. His lab has just been awarded a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for support of the project “Developing Organic Photoconductive Materials through Modular Design of Self-Assembling Components.”
Working on the development of new organic-based materials, Reczeks’ long-term goal is efficient and cost-effective capture of solar energy. He will design several series of molecules that by themselves are relatively simple and affordable, but when they’re combined with each other, they’ll have photovoltaic properties far greater than the sum of the parts. The grant will support chemicals and supplies, as well as funding for nine full-time summer research student positions over a three-year period.