Organic solar cells will help spur viability of alternative energy
by Mary Benanti
New Mexico State University news release
October 10, 2005
SANTA FE — Imagine being able to “paint” your roof with enough alternative energy to heat and cool your home. What if soldiers in the field could carry an energy source in a roll of plastic wrap in their backpacks?
Those ideas sound like science fiction — particularly in the wake of the rising costs of fossil fuel.
But both are on the way to becoming reality because of a breakthrough in solar research by a team of scientists from New Mexico State University and Wake Forest University.
While traditional solar panels are made of silicon, which is expensive, brittle and shatters like glass, organic solar cells being developed by this team are made of plastic that is relatively inexpensive, flexible, can be wrapped around structures or even applied like paint, said physicist Seamus Curran, head of the nanotechnology laboratory at NMSU. Nanotechnology, or molecular manufacturing, refers to the ability to build things one atom at a time.
The relatively low energy efficiency levels produced by organic solar cells have been a drawback. To be effective producers of energy, they must be able to convert 10 percent of the energy in sunlight to electricity. Typical silicon panels are about 12 percent energy conversion efficient.
That level of energy conversion has been a difficult reach for researchers on organic solar technology, with many of them hitting about 3 to 4 percent. But the NMSU/Wake Forest team has achieved a solar energy efficiency level of 5.2 percent. The announcement was made at the Santa Fe Workshop on Nanoengineered Materials and Macro-Molecular Technologies, which opened Sunday and continues through Friday.
Recent solar and fuel cell articles
Scientists at the Technical University of Denmark have invented a technology which may be an important step towards the hydrogen economy: a hydrogen tablet that effectively stores hydrogen in an inexpensive and safe material. With the new hydrogen tablet, it becomes much simpler to use the environmentally-friendly energy of hydrogen. Hydrogen is a non-polluting fuel, but since it is a light gas it occupies too much volume, and it is flammable. Consequently, effective and safe storage of hydrogen has challenged researchers world-wide for almost three decades. At the Technical University of Denmark, DTU, an interdisciplinary team has developed a hydrogen tablet which enables storage and transport of hydrogen in solid form.
Cockroaches and rats used as batteries? August 24, 2005
An article in today’s Manilla Times highlights some local research into using common household pests as energy sources. A group of scientists from Feati University recently devised a biological fuel cell that uses the enzyme Nicotinamide Adenine Dinucleotide (NAD) to directly convert biochemical energy into electricity. Their research raises the possibility that household pests like mosquitoes, rats, cockroaches and flies could be used as biofuel sources. Cockroaches generated the highest amperage, according to the article.
Researchers led by Michael Epstein at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Israel think they may have an energy efficient way of collecting solar energy to generate hydrogen, a key input for green energy technologies like fuel cells. Currently, most hydrogen is produced by processes that require the combustion of fossil fuels which produce polluting greenhouse gases. Further, to date, finding safe and cost-effective means for the storage and transportation of hydrogen gas have proved elusive. Epstein’s process has the potential to address a number of these issues by “creating an easily storable intermediate energy source form from metal ore, such as zinc oxide,” according to a release from the Weizmann Institute of Science.”
“This means we are closer to making organic solar cells that are available on the market,” Curran said.
Conventional thinking has been that that landmark was at least a decade away. With this group’s research, it may be only four or five years before plastic solar cells are a reality for consumers, Curran added.
The importance of the breakthrough cannot be underestimated, Curran said.
“We need to look into alternative energy sources if the United States is to reduce its dependence on foreign sources,” the NMSU physics professor said.
New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary Rick Homans added, “This breakthrough pushes the state of New Mexico further ahead in the development of usable solar energy, a vital national resource. It combines two of the important clusters on which the state is focused: renewable energy and micro nano systems, and underlines the strong research base of our state universities.”
A cheap, flexible plastic made of a polymer blend would revolutionize the solar market, Curran said.
“Our expectation is to get beyond 10 percent in the next five years,” Curran said. “Our current mix is using polymer and carbon buckyballs (fullerenes) and good engineering from Wake Forest and unique NSOM imaging from NMSU to get to that point.”
NSOM or near-field scanning optical microscopy allows them to scan objects too small for regular microscopes.
The development is an outgrowth of the collaborative’s work developing high-tech coatings for military aircraft, a program supported by Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Curran said.
The nanotechnologies workshop, being held at the Loretto Inn and Spa in Santa Fe, is co-sponsored by the Economic Development Department. Researchers from around the world are attending sessions that will examine novel and exotic approaches to nano-scale technologies.
The purpose of the gathering is to identify emerging nanotechnologies and opportunities. For more information on the conference, go to http://nanophysics.nmsu.edu/ and click on conference.
This is a modified news released from New Mexico State University. The original version appears at NMSU/Wake Forest solar breakthrough will help spur viability of alternative energy.