A cure for blindness? A next-generation solar concentrator?

Two new Rochester fellows of the National Academy of Inventors take aim.

The most efficient photovoltaic cells used for solar power cost up to $50,000 per square meter. What if these cells could be replaced with a plastic solar concentrator less than 3 mm thick that concentrates sunlight 500 times at only $100 per square meter?

Diseases that cause blindness destroy the rods and cones in the retina. Ganglion cells rely on rods and cones to detect light as it comes into the eye. Could blindness be cured if ganglion cells could be coaxed by genetically engineered viruses to take on this function?

These tantalizing prospects are being pursued by two celebrated University of Rochester scientists whose work has already proven transformative, resulting in their election as 2021 fellows of the National Academy of Inventors.

Duncan Moore, the Rudolf and Hilda Kingslake Professor of Optical Engineering, and David Williams, the William G. Allyn Professor of Medical Optics, join 162 other NAI inductees chosen for their “highly prolific spirit of innovation in creating or facilitating outstanding inventions that have made a tangible impact on the quality of life, economic development, and welfare of society.”

A next-generation solar concentrator

Moore has received $3.4 million in grant funding from the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency–Energy to develop a planar light guide using micro-optics to capture, orient, and concentrate direct sunlight onto a single photovoltaic (PV) cell.

“With this grant we will be aiming to produce the next generation solar concentrator,” Moore says. “One advantage of using our approach is that our planar light guide is translucent, so any light that is not concentrated into the PV cell will go through the material. This is of interest to architects as it provides a material that will be letting light through at the same time as helping produce electricity from solar energy.”

Moore, who serves as vice provost for entrepreneurship and oversees the Ain Center for Entrepreneurship, is also a pioneer in the development of gradient-index lenses. The lenses work much like insect eyes, using a single lens in place of several to bend light rays. This enabled smaller, less expensive endoscopes used for a host of applications, ranging from devices used by physicians to peer into the body to rifle scopes. Twenty-five years ago, Moore commercialized the technology through the company he founded, Gradient Lens Corp., which continues to manufacture high-quality, low-cost Hawkeye borescopes.

Moore, who holds 18 patents, chaired the successful Hubble Independent Optical Review Panel organized in 1990 to determine the correct prescription of the Hubble Space Telescope. He also served as associate director for technology in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during the Clinton administration.

‘Technically brilliant and ground-breaking work’ in visual science

Adaptive optics were first developed by astronomers so that telescopes could see more clearly through Earth’s atmosphere. Williams, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading experts in human vision, and his research group applied these techniques to the human eye. That work made possible the imaging of individual retinal cells — down to individual cone photoreceptors in the living human retina. The approach not only modifies the light leaving the eye to obtain a better pictures of the retina; it also modifies the light going into the eye to produce better vision with contact lenses, intraocular lenses, and laser refractive surgery. The methods Williams’s group developed are used in many of the LASIK procedures conducted worldwide today.

Williams; Juliette McGregor,  assistant professor of ophthalmology; and William Merigan, professor of ophthalmology, are now poised to combine new advances in molecular biology with next-generation adaptive optics to better understand the role of the retina’s ganglion cells in processing visual signals for the brain. They have come up with a way to stimulate those cells with a virus, causing the ganglion cells to create their own visual signals when the retina’s rods and cones are irreparably damaged by disease. The result could potentially lead to a cure for diseases that cause blindness.

Williams, who holds 10 patents, directed the University’s Center for Visual Science for 30 years. He also served as dean of research for Arts, Sciences, and Engineering. The jury for the Champalimaud Vision Award, one of nearly three dozen awards Williams has received, stated that Williams and his research group have “revitalized the field of physiological optics, producing year after year truly beautiful, technically brilliant and groundbreaking work.”

Says Williams: “At several key decision points in my career, prominent scientists stated categorically that it was impossible to realize one or another scientific goal that I happened to be dreaming about. While it was more out of obstinance than cleverness on my part, I’m glad I didn’t listen. More often than not, it is our imagination, not nature, that sets the limits on what is possible.”

Original source: University of Rochester

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