Jaures Alferov, the Scientific Luminary

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17.11.2010

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On November 2nd at UNESCO Headquarters for the first time there was a presentation of UNESCO medals “For contributions to the development of nanoscience and nanotechnology”. By decision of the international jury the Medal of Honour was awarded to Russian Academician Jaures Alferov.

This distinguished scholar has been honoured with a great many awards. And the year 2000 brought him general recognition - the Nobel Prize. It marked a discovery in the field of semiconductor physics: the scientist succeeded in growing man-made crystals one billionth of a meter thick. The first of them can give off streams of light, the second ones - to absorb and convert it into electricity, and the third ones - to transmit light over very long distances.

The fortunate journalistic path once brought me to Jaures Ivanovich Alferov. We met in the State Duma, and I was asking him about solar energy. At that time he had just returned from India he visited on invitation of the Indian Centre for Philosophy and Science Foundation as a Nobel Prize in Physics winner to deliver lectures at the festival dedicated to Albert Einstein (later he lectured in Delhi and Madras).

In Delhi, Jaures Alferov met with Abdul Kalam, the President of the country of the time on the initiative of the latter. Abdul Kalam is a famous scientist, head of the national missile program, in Russian terms – the “Indian Korolev”. Certainly, this ambitious man, head of the country, was worried about energy issues. He knew perfectly well the range of scientific interests of Academician Alferov and wanted to discuss issues relating to solar energy.

The sides spent all 40 minutes of the meeting to discuss a single, but extremely important topic – the solar energy conversion based on solar batteries, silicon-based and semiconductor heterostructures. I noticed then that Mr. Kalam also supports the development of nuclear power engineering, he applied for a large-scale program of building nuclear power plants in the country. And Alferov answered: “Naturally. So far there is no alternative to nuclear power. However in several decades atomic energetics will move aside and will be replaced by solar power engineering. This is the future of the world”.

For India, flooded with sun light, the interest in solar energy is evident. But Russia is a country in northern latitudes where the sun does not appear for months... But here’s the paradox attracting attention of scientists: on an annualized basis a lot of territory of the country receive more solar energy than insolated regions of Europe. However, solar energy is dispersed, and to convert it into electricity, special technologies are needed.

Such technologies are exactly the scientific priority of Nobel prizewinner Jaures Alferov. “From my point of view, the main long-term direction of the solar power engineering development is photoenergetics, he told me. - Semiconductor heterostructures represent an ideal material for solar energy efficient conversion because they allow solving the major task of the efficient use of photons incident on the semiconductor.

Today, the use of so-called multistage photocells incorporated in a single heterostructure, has made it possible to achieve 40% efficiency of solar energy conversion (potential is up to 87%). “The Sun is an eternal source of pure energy granted by nature, people will learn to produce from it most of energy already at the close of the century,” said the scientist with confidence. “It is a pity that today in Russia semiconductor electronics, the semiconductor material industry are in decline,” he said. “In the Soviet times we were actively engaged in the production of semiconductor-grade silicon. Today, however, significant investments are required to make it possible for Russia to be among the leading countries in this field again”.

On that day after the meeting in the State Duma, I stayed there to hear a speech by the deputy of the State Duma, Academician Alferov at a conference of the inter-faction deputy association “Science and High Technology” on the subject “Legislative support for the photoenergetics development in Russia”. To tell the truth, Academician’s speech captivated me – both by the very idea of Earthmen’s connection by means of heterostructures with the solar inexhaustible energy, and by the scientist’s arguments and by that emotional tension that ran through his speech. “Solar power engineering is worth getting state support, financial and legal one,” such was the main idea of the speaker. - Today its “contribution” to global power grids is more than modest - only 2 GW a year (gigawatts), but by the end of the century it will be dominant and, according to various estimates, will make up two-thirds of all energy production,” the Academician predicted emphasizing that solar power engineering is designed to compensate dwindling oil and gas resources, furthermore it is really pure, thus removing all the environmental issues.

But in the meantime solar power systems are expensive, the fact is that the solar energy flux density is low. According to Alferov, one of the ways to solve the problem is the use of concentrated solar radiation, which is achieved by focusing systems. It makes it possible to dramatically reduce the cost of expensive semiconductor materials, to increase the efficiency of semiconductor converters. The scientist emphasized that Russia does have personnel and traditions to be able to solve such issues in this field of science: Despite the hard times, one has managed to retain a number of active research centers and production facilities.

“Mankind has a reliable natural thermonuclear reactor - the Sun,” the Academician explained to me. “It is a G2 star, very average, of which there are up to 150 billion in the Galaxy. But this star is ours, and it sends enormous power to Earth, the transformation of which allows to satisfy almost any energy demands of mankind for many hundreds of years.”

That reminds me, in Skolkovo, near Moscow, a Scientific-Technological Complex for the development and commercialization of new technologies will be built soon. This will be an analogue of the American Silicon Valley, where high-tech companies are concentrated.

Academician Jaures Alferov was appointed research manager of Innograd Skolkovo. The appearance of a Russian Silicon Valley is endorsed by Academician Alferov. He thinks that “the country can be really independent only subject to development of the economy based on high technologies” (in Japan, the united Europe and the USA solar energy systems development programs has long obtained the status of national ones). The scientific-technological complex in Skolkovo is a serious chance also for semiconductor heterostructures that convert solar energy. So Academician Alferov’s dream becomes more tangible.

...Of course, there are also skeptics who think that there is no need to appeal to the Sun when there is everything here on the Earth. But nature has given us the life-giving Sun, our star, not without reason, hasn’t it?

Tatiana Sinitsyna, writer