UMass Amherst Scientists Seek Better Ways to Harvest Sun’s Power for Electricity

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By UMass Amherst

April 30, 2010


An international group of scientists led by the University of Massachusetts Amherst aims to find better ways to convert the sun’s energy into electrical power. Backed by a $16 million Energy Frontier Research Center stimulus grant from the Department of Energy (DOE), the campus is directing efforts to develop polymer-based solar harvesting materials that will be used to advance solar cell technology.

“The DOE established 46 Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) in 2009 located at research institutions across the nation and UMass Amherst was chosen to host one,” says Paul Lahti, Chemistry, who co-directs the UMass Amherst Center with Thomas Russell, Polymer Science and Engineering. “It’s confirmation that we have some of the brightest minds at work on energy research.”

According to the DOE, the goal of the EFRC program is to harness the most promising advanced energy research to establish the scientific foundation for a fundamentally new U.S. energy economy.

The UMass Amherst EFRC called PHaSE (Polymer-based materials for Harvesting Solar Energy) hopes to optimize solar energy harvesting and its conversion to electricity through the development of polymer-based photovoltaic devices that are an improvement over current technology.

“We are particularly focused on organic photovoltaic (OPV) cell improvement, using polymers, organic compounds, and special composites of organic/inorganic compounds,” says Russell, a leading authority in polymer nano-architecture design. “Materials that self-assemble naturally at the molecular and nanoscale level will be sought in order to optimize performance.”

Lahti, an internationally recognized expert in organic electronic materials, adds, “Current solar energy panels produce electricity, and are getting more popular, but the power they produce is still much more expensive than from fossil fuels. Organic polymers can be made into solar cells more easily than the silicon used today.  But, organic solar panels are not yet efficient in turning sunlight to electricity. At the PHaSE EFRC, we push the molecular-level frontiers of turning light to electricity. By understanding the smallest levels of detail, we are finding ways to make solar power cheaper and more available.”

PHaSE is a broad effort and involves collaborations with scientists at other institutions besides UMass Amherst including the University of Massachusetts Lowell, the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania State University, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. International collaborative efforts with Seoul National University, the Advanced Institute of Materials Research at Tohoku University and the University of Bayreuth are planned.

“Industrial partners are also on board to help transfer scientific results from lab to commercial applications,” says Lahti. “Strong interactions have already developed with Massachusetts-based Konarka Technologies, a leader in the production of photovoltaic devices.” 

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