Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Bringing solar power to the masses

07.08.2009
On a 104-degree Friday in July when sunlight bathed The University of Arizona campus, doctoral student Dio Placencia sat before a noisy vacuum chamber in the Chemical Sciences Building trying to advance the renewable energy revolution.

As a member of UA professor Neal R. Armstrong's research group, Placencia conducts research aimed at creating a thin, flexible organic solar cell that could power a tent or keep a car charged between trips to work and back home again.

He's passionate about renewable energy and says it's a waste that so little solar has been incorporated into society. "I have a little flat panel that I walk around with," Placencia said. "I usually put that on my backpack, and I charge my cell phone when I'm walking to school."

The sun is clean and free. "Here it is," he said. "Why not use it?"

Across the University, professors, researchers, students and others involved in policy planning and economic analysis are working to make that question moot. In a region noted for abundant sunlight, they are chipping away at problems like how to employ solar at the utility-generating plant level, how to harness it to charge the newly indispensable products of the day – cell phones, MP3 players, laptops – what to do at night and when clouds halt the energy giveaway from the sky.

The research proceeds in labs amid state-of-the-art equipment funded by multimillion-dollar federal grants. It's the product of students' hunches and long careers spent unlocking the mysteries of science. Along the way, students are being immersed in a nascent industry that many hope will be the economic engine of the next decade.

"Looking at renewable energy is a perfect place to emphasize that we don't know where the next breakthrough is going to be," said Leslie P. Tolbert, UA vice president for research, graduate studies and economic development. "Somewhere in a lab someplace, there's somebody figuring out a whole new way to capture sunlight. In fact, there are many people doing that. And even they are depending on knowing that there is, behind them, a cadre of basic science researchers producing new information that will feed their thoughts."

Armstrong, a professor of chemistry and optical sciences at the UA, occasionally teaches freshman chemistry. He decided one day near the end of the semester to try to make the material even more relevant. "I said to myself, well, lithium ion batteries in my cell phone, in my iPod," – his daughter had given him one – "I wonder how much coal we burn to charge those guys up at the end of the day. Because that's one of the big drivers for portable power, to get all this stuff off the grid." After making some very conservative calculations, he arrived at an answer, which he shared with the class: "You burn about a quarter of a pound of coal per charge of your lithium ion battery, and you generate about half a pound of CO2 per charge, per battery, per day .... The room got really quiet."

The next time, he intends to calculate how much coal is burned per Twitter tweet.

"It really is chilling," Armstrong said. "You start doing the math and thinking about the number of consumer electronic devices that you and I have added to our lives in the last decade that I charge up typically once every night – my laptop computer and my cell phone. Then you start thinking about, 'What if I do buy an electric car, and I come home at night and plug that sucker in,' and you do the same thing. We'll shut this grid down in no time."

In April, the U.S. Department of Energy announced it was funding Armstrong's Center for Interface Science as one of 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers. The mission of these centers, which will receive $2 million to $5 million a year for five years, is "to address current fundamental scientific roadblocks to clean energy and energy security," according to the DOE.

Ever since Armstrong was a graduate student during the first Arab oil embargo in 1973, he's experienced a succession of government distress calls over energy. One such emergency led him to discover the work of Heinz Gerischer and Frank Willig in Germany. They had figured out how to adsorb dye molecules to the surface of oxides and split water with light from the sun. "I thought, 'That's it. That's what I'm going to do my career on.'"

He moved to the UA in 1978, attracted by a program in photo-thermal solar energy conversion. In the 1980s, with gas cheap and plentiful again, solar went back on the back burner.

The next call came about four years ago. "DOE was beginning to sense that the tides were about to shift again, big-time," Armstrong said. "And they were really concerned that they didn't know what to do – how to present this to Congress in a way that would lead to new funding and which would have a rationale associated with it so that by the middle of this century we had someplace to go."

Armstrong realized it was time to come back to the problem that he wanted to work on 30 years before. "This time, we were really well-equipped," he said. "We've learned how to image molecules at the molecular level, we've learned how to measure energies of incredibly thin films, we've learned how to make devices, we've collaborated with physicists and material sciences and that sort of thing, we've done a lot of interesting other stuff and I suddenly realized I could bring it all back together here."

In his office, he displays a sample of his work: a 1-inch square of glass on which is deposited a thin film of indium tin oxide, a conducting transparent oxide commonly found in display technologies like computer screens. On top of that is a thin film of organic dyes. The last layer is an aluminum electrode.

"You'd have a roll of plastic with these cells laid out on it," he explained. "The idea is for you to go to Target or something like that and buy this roll of plastic and roll it out. It's got two wires connected to it, and you plug in your battery or your laptop and charge it up."

"The grand total in terms of the thickness is about 400 nanometers, which is one ten-thousandth the thickness of a human hair. And yet, shine a light on it and you get electricity out of it. Now we'd like it to be a bit thicker. We have to keep them thin in order to get all of the electrical charge out of the device. But if you think about this as a sandwich structure, we've made this incredibly thin sandwich and then each of the layers in contact with each other have to be just right in terms of the chemical composition, the orientation of the molecules, how well they adhere to each of the underlying surfaces. And if I go in and change just one molecule layer, the composition – that's at the level of 1 nanometer in thickness – I can take a good device and turn it into a bad device; I can take a bad device and turn it into a good device. That's the kind of level of control that we need. And we don't fully understand it."

But the equipment available now – optical microscopes capable of imaging individual molecules and revealing their electrical properties and spatial orientation – are helping his team understand. His goal is to figure out how to have the molecules arrange themselves – every time – in a way to produce lots of electricity. "They have to all line up like little soldiers," he said.

"We have to give you a technology that is going to look like an ink, like a blue ink, that you can spray down on one of these surfaces and the molecules at the nanometer level are going to say, 'OK, we're going to get organized this way,' and in doing so, when I put that top electrode on and shine a light, I'll get lots and lots of electricity out of there," Armstrong said.

A high vacuum photoelectron spectrometer allows them to build each molecular layer, moving it within the vacuum to study it, and then continue with another molecular layer. Other tools, like a silicon microtip, which looks like a tiny phonograph needle, can be positioned to +/- 0.01 nanometers. "Well inside the diameter of a molecule," he said. Bouncing a laser off the back of the tip yields an image. Passing current through the tip, they can map the electrical properties of molecules. All this can help them build a template to create the ideal array of the molecule assemblies.

Erin Ratcliff joined the team as a postdoctoral electrochemist with a doctorate from Iowa State. "My background wasn't in solar cells at all," she said. "I had to come here and had to learn everything, where grad students get it from Day One at the UA."

She spoke of the business school curve, resembling a hockey stick, when progress begins to accelerate rapidly. "We're right at the magic moment when the hockey stick starts to take off, when you go from flat to hockey stick. We're right there. It's exciting to read the literature and hope that, yes, we will take off. It will be exciting to look back and say 'I was there for that.'"

Johnny Cruz | EurekAlert!
Further information:
http://www.arizona.edu

More articles from Power and Electrical Engineering:

nachricht Did you know that the wrapping of Easter eggs benefits from specialty light sources?
13.04.2017 | Heraeus Noblelight GmbH

nachricht To e-, or not to e-, the question for the exotic 'Si-III' phase of silicon
05.04.2017 | Carnegie Institution for Science

All articles from Power and Electrical Engineering >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Making lightweight construction suitable for series production

More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.

Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...

Im Focus: Wonder material? Novel nanotube structure strengthens thin films for flexible electronics

Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.

"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...

Im Focus: Deep inside Galaxy M87

The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.

Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...

Im Focus: A Quantum Low Pass for Photons

Physicists in Garching observe novel quantum effect that limits the number of emitted photons.

The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...

Im Focus: Microprocessors based on a layer of just three atoms

Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.

Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

Fighting drug resistant tuberculosis – InfectoGnostics meets MYCO-NET² partners in Peru

28.04.2017 | Event News

Expert meeting “Health Business Connect” will connect international medical technology companies

20.04.2017 | Event News

Wenn der Computer das Gehirn austrickst

18.04.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Wireless power can drive tiny electronic devices in the GI tract

28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering

Ice cave in Transylvania yields window into region's past

28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences

Nose2Brain – Better Therapy for Multiple Sclerosis

28.04.2017 | Life Sciences

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>