Raymond Kostuk Looks to Future of Solar Energy
Professor Raymond Kostuk has long been interested in bridging scientific fields to develop new capabilities. During his more than three decades at the University of Arizona, Kostuk, who has appointments in ECE and the James C. Wyant College of Optical Sciences, has pioneered research in holography and its application in fields as diverse as solar energy conversion and medical imaging. In addition to being a fellow of the Optical Society of America and the SPIE, he’s also acted as a mentor to an array of successful students, published books, and conducted research funded by numerous government agencies and industry.
From Light to Electricity
Kostuk also helped form a National Science Foundation Engineering Research Center, or ERC, called Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, or QESST. The center brings together researchers from multiple universities and energy companies to advance photovoltaic technology, which involves converting light into electricity. Now entering its final year of a 10-year NSF award, the center’s primary goal has been to increase the efficiency of solar energy conversion in a way that can scale to terawatt – or 10^12 watt – levels.
Scalability is important because, at any given moment, the United States is using about 4 to 5 terawatts of power. The cost of photovoltaics must also be competitive with fossil fuel energy production.
The center does outreach with students at all levels -- from K-12 to graduate school. Teaching solar energy concepts at the grade school level is especially important to the center as it motivates young learners to pursue STEM education paths and careers in science and engineering. The team also worked to educate K-12 teachers, providing them with projects to use in their curricula.
“The collaborations enabled by the ERC have undoubtably been one of the highlights of my career,” Kostuk said. “It was extremely beneficial to me and the photovoltaic community at large, because we formed a really great team of experts. In many respects, this team is now considered a national resource on photovoltaics and will most likely play a major role in converting the United States to clean energy in the future decade.”
Kostuk has been involved in QESST since its formation, alongside professors Christiana Honsberg, from Arizona State University, and Harry Atwater, from the California Institute of Technology. Honsberg and Atwater have both testified before Congress on the state of photovoltaics in the United States.
“Professor Honsberg was interested in working with me because I was using optics to improve the performance of photovoltaic systems. I was kind of an outlier, because most of the other faculty involved were materials scientists who were experts on designing and processing solar cells,” Kostuk said. “At first I felt like a fish out of water being surrounded by materials scientists, but as time went on, we found ways to collaborate and come up with interesting ideas that used the strengths of many different areas.”
Over QESST’s lifetime, photovoltaics grew rapidly in the United States and across the world. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, jobs in solar power have increased by nearly 160% since 2010.
Kostuk estimates his work with QESST resulted in him receiving well over $1 million in research funding, and another half-million from spinoff contracts and grants.
Preparing Engineers For The Workforce
Kostuk also prepares engineers for the workforce in his Photonic Systems Lab, which investigates new capabilities for photonics in medical imaging, solar energy conversion and optical communications. Some of Kostuk’s former students include Yuan Luo, who is now a professor at the Institute of Medical Devices and Imaging at National Taiwan University; Shanalyn Kemme, who is a lead research engineer at Sandia National Labs, James Carriere, director of business development at Coherent Optics Inc.; and Erich de Leon, who has worked at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Raytheon Technologies.
Holographic Concepts and Applications
He’s stayed busy in other ways, too. In 2019, Kostuk published Holography: Principles and Applications, a book detailing holographic concepts in applications including medical imaging, solar conversion systems and augmented reality eyewear. In 2016, he published: Holographic Applications in Solar Energy Conversion Processes, which details how holography can be used to improve the performance of photovoltaic systems.
With QESST nearing its close, Kostuk and his co-researchers are formulating a new ERC proposal focused on integrating photovoltaics into society.
“Looking forward, I’m thinking about what to do with the remainder of my life,” Kostuk said.
“I still like teaching, and I really want to make some contributions in the solar energy area, because I think climate change is a real threat to humankind. And a lot of the ideas I have are aligned with this new ERC. I want to serve as a steward for new interests and workers in this area.”