Through the solar glass

Los Alamos-based company developing material that can be used in windows to gather energy

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Hunter McDaniel would love to be the person who helps to expand solar energy to the world's biggest cities.

But when he looks at the densely packed urban centers awash with skyscrapers, he doesn't see many rooftops that can accommodate solar panels or other devices.

What he does see are windows, lots of them.

McDaniel is founder and president of a Los Alamos-based company that is pioneering a material that can be folded into windows to better focus the light into electricity. He sees the company he founded with help from Los Alamos National Laboratory, UbiQD, as the best path to advance the design of solar windows in urban settings, as well as remote greenhouses far off the grid.

"Look around New York, you won't see solar rooftops," he said. "Rooftops are not solar spaces, they're social spaces. People want to have parties up there."

Even though McDaniel is having discussions with engineers and architects - one who is designing a hotel and is interested in solar windows - the technology is not yet ready for production. But it's the larger science - advancements in the manufacturing of quantum dots - that is propelling UbiQD, which stands for Ubiquitous Quantum Dots.

Quantum dots are a nanomaterial used in science and manufacturing to manipulate and refract light in products like computer consoles and screens. Depending on the size and composition of the dots, they can emit a broad light spectrum and have been increasingly used in large TV screens for a more robust picture.

But because most dots use cadmium as a key ingredient, they are toxic and because of that toxicity, they are limited as to how they can be used in manufacturing, McDaniel said.

McDaniel has spent his academic and professional career working to find a better quantum dot, one that has a low level of toxicity and incorporates copper, zinc and sulfur instead of the more dangerous cadmium.

His father traveled the world working for an energy company and McDaniel lived in Africa, California, Texas and graduated from high school from an international school in Bangkok, Thailand. Like a kid with a chemistry set, he was always drawn to materials science, studying physics and electrical engineering at the University of California, Santa Barbara, then pursuing a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois.

As he got more interested in quantum computing, "I realized materials were everything," he said and focused his research on quantum dots. "It was awesome," he said. "It was exactly what I wanted."

He ended up in a post-doctorate research program at Los Alamos National Laboratory because his adviser at Illinois knew Victor I. Klimov, one of the world's experts in the area of quantum dots and leader of the Nanotechnology and Advanced Spectroscopy Team at LANL.

LANL researchers have been leading the way in quantum dot research as part of a mission to explore solar energy technology. McDaniel was a big part of that research and incorporated some of the patent technology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to advance a low-toxic production of quantum dots, in part with grant money from Sharp Electronics.

But as his commitment with the lab was winding down, it became clear that Sharp's interest in the science was waning - and there would be little effort to commercialize what McDaniel learned about low-toxic quantum dots. LANL doesn't bring products to market, but through a technology-transfer office, it works with interested scientists on license agreements to help them form private companies.

McDaniel always had an entrepreneurial bent; he listens to earnings calls and follows technology companies. He considers himself a risk taker and decided to pursue the development of quantum dots as a career.

He left the lab in October 2014 and incorporated his company with a small investment from family members and a commitment from the New Mexico Consortium, a nonprofit formed by three state universities that aims to boost scientific research in the state.

It was in early 2015 when UbiQD got its first order for quantum dots from a technology company in Singapore, which is doing its own laboratory work. It has since received more support from angel investors in New Mexico and grant money from the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy.

Last week, Los Alamos County pledged a $325,000 no-interest loan that will be paired with a $125,000 grant from the state Economic Development Department so UbiQD can purchase and renovate its 9,000-square-foot building in the Los Alamos Industrial Park.

The total cost of the project is $650,000 for the purchase and another $250,000 for machines, supplies and equipment.

McDaniel said the company can't really go to a bank at this time because there is insufficient collateral, so help from the county and state is tantamount to its success.

Joanie Ahlers, economic development administrator for Los Alamos County, said the partnership will allow UbiQD to use its capital to buy equipment and refurbish the building for more lab space and clean rooms, which are needed to ramp up production of its quantum dots.

The particles are tiny, with 10,000 quantum dots fitting on a width of human hair, said McDaniel. One gram used for research sells for $1,500.

"They have to make a transition into manufacturing pretty quickly," Ahlers said.

She said six of the firm's eight employees purchased homes in Los Alamos and McDaniel has shown he wants to stay in the community and grow there. "The county felt this was a solid company with a great future," Ahlers said.

The expansion will be needed to satisfy the second phase of a National Science Foundation grant to develop its window technology that incorporates quantum dots. To make the windows photovoltaic, they are laced onto a thin sheet of tinted plastic and inserted between two glass plates.

A small solar cell is embedded in the corner of the glass. To demonstrate the concept, McDaniel can shine a flashlight on the plate and attach a voltmeter.

The key to bringing the windows to market is to have a seamless product with a tint that is ubiquitous. "We have to have it look exactly the same, but just generate electricity," McDaniel said.

McDaniel said there are other potential applications. There is some indication, for example, that some leafy greens, spinach and tomatoes grow better in red light. "We do see red as the color of the greenhouses," he said. "We can generate electricity, but also maybe improve crop growth."

A low-toxic quantum dot might also have applications in things like stop signs, road markings and bike reflectors to make them glow brighter - and thus more effective.

McDaniel said UbiQD doesn't anticipate making the products as windows, but would find industry partners while retaining ownership of the core technology.

But he said the window technology can be an advance that resets the way the world thinks about energy.

"We might not have to worry so much about energy in the future if we can generate it everywhere," he said.

Contact Krasnow at brucek@sfnewmexican.­com. This story was first published in The Santa Fe New Mexican, a sister publication of The Taos News.

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