Winner of campus’s new Bakar Prize hopes to harness sun’s power

Junqiao Wu looks at the camera while standing in his lab

Professor Junqiao Wu is the winner of the 2020 Bakar Prize. (Photo by Mark Joseph Hanson)

A few years ago, Junqiao Wu, a UC Berkeley professor of material science and engineering, figured out how he could use thermal power to transform materials: roofs that adapt to temperatures and save energy, new types of sunglasses and even tools that could screen for cancer or monitor hidden defects in buildings.

But turning those laboratory discoveries into real-world tools is almost a harder problem.

Recently, Wu was awarded the campus’s new Bakar Prize for his work. The new $225,000 prize is awarded to a member of the faculty who is navigating the slow and tricky period of taking commercially promising discoveries beyond a lab-produced concept.

The prize, part of the well-regarded Bakar Fellows program, is part of a larger push at Berkeley to support faculty in finding marketable applications for their research.

“Berkeley is at its best when its astonishing intellectual creativity is transformed in various ways into societal benefit,” said Rich Lyons, Berkeley’s chief innovation and entrepreneurship officer. “The Bakar Fellows program stimulates a fundamental part of that.”

Wu, who plans to use the $225,000 to hire a researcher to spearhead the studies, said the Bakar Prize would help him “refine and scale up the materials and structures to show realistic prototypes.”

“The kind of research and development that we carry out in this project is highly innovative, but very applied and entrepreneurial,” he said. “Funding with high flexibility in spending and multiple years of investment is needed for such type of work, and the Bakar Prize exactly fills this space needed.”

Professor Amy Herr, a professor in the Department of Bioengineering and faculty director of the Bakar Fellows program said Wu was a worthy winner of the inaugural prize. Wu was selected by a panel of Berkeley alumni who have real-world experience bringing scientific discoveries to market.

‘Tough tech’ means tackling big problems; ideas that require years to realize, not months,” Herr said. “The Bakar Prize recognizes pioneering faculty and their rising star teams; researchers who are facing head-on these ‘tough tech’ problems.”

Berkeley, she added, was one of the few universities to offer an award like the Bakar Prize.

“Few – if any – universities support their faculty in this very special, critically important journey through what we call the ‘chasm of chaos,’” she said. “Berkeley does.”

Read more about Junqiao Wu’s work with smart materials: