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Chemistry professors awarded IREE grant for solar cell research

Posted by Judy Korn on Tuesday, May. 11, 2010

The University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment awarded University of Minnesota, Morris chemistry professors Ted Pappenfus and Joe Alia a $59,546 grant through the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment (IREE). The grant will support “Experimental and Theoretical Investigations of Conducting Polymers for Solar Cells.”

Pappenfus’s area of research is photovoltaics, a field of technology and research related to the application of solar cells for energy by converting sunlight directly into electricity. Pappenfus and Alia’s project includes the design, preparation, and characterization of new polymers, or plastics, for use in efficient and economical photovoltaic devices.

“More energy from the sun hits the earth in an hour than all of the energy consumed on this planet in one year,” shares Pappenfus. “In order to solve our current energy crisis, the exploitation of solar energy must play a more prominent role. Technology must improve to find better ways to capture the sun’s energy, store it, and do so in an economically feasible manner.”

Currently, silicon-based solar cells dominate the market. Conducting polymers represent an attractive alternative to conventional solar cells due to their ease of fabrication and flexible nature. But even the world’s best plastic solar cells are only about eight percent efficient.

“That’s the challenge, to increase the efficiency to more than 10 percent,” says Pappenfus. “The ultimate goal is to create cheap, renewable energy.”

Computational chemistry
Alia’s area of expertise is theoretical or computational chemistry. The team’s investigation begins with preliminary work using calculations to describe and understand the properties of new and existing polymers. That knowledge will be applied in the experimental phase in the laboratory and communicated with others in the field.

Solar cells are already on the market, but as efficiency increases and cost decreases, the technology will have broad implications in daily life. “That’s the beauty of photovoltaics,” says Pappenfus, “you can put the devices anywhere, from our homes to our backpacks fueling personal iPods and laptops.”

Pappenfus and Alia’s solar research complements campus renewable energy efforts in the areas of wind and biomass. The project also reflects Morris’s emphasis on undergraduate student research. Students Ryan Koehn, Willmar, Matthew Lovander, Willmar, and Jennifer Schmidt, St. Cloud, will work with the professors this summer on the project. The team’s preliminary findings will be reported at the E3 Conference on the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities campus in November 2010.