Photochemists at BGSU want to shed light on the future—and at a low cost.
The work of Drs. Felix Castellano and Pavel Anzenbacher, aimed at developing next-generation photovoltaic materials much cheaper than today’s technology, will be part of a newly established Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization Center, based at the University of Toledo.
The UT-led consortium has received $18.6 million in Wright Centers of Innovation funding from the state to create the center, part of Ohio’s Third Frontier Project. Photovoltaics deals with converting sunlight to electricity, and research at the center will focus on advanced materials for use in constructing and developing solar cell arrays. Prototyping and demonstrating various photovoltaic system components, developing and installing a complete system, and graduate-level education and consumer awareness are also planned.
“It’s quite a massive project,” said Castellano, calling the center “a very broadly defined research program.” It encompasses every facet of modern photovoltaic technology, the lead BGSU researcher said, and comprises 19 partners—also including Ohio State University—from higher education and the private sector.
The BGSU photochemists became involved through their association with UT physics professors Alvin Compaan and Robert Collins. Collins is director of the project, in which Castellano and Anzenbacher will continue their study of “third-generation” photovoltaic materials.
The two scientists “have established themselves as leaders in the field of molecular photonics,” according to Dr. Heinz Bulmahn, vice provost for research. “BGSU’s work in the photosciences has been recognized as a great strength for this institution and will contribute significantly to regional efforts to bring photovoltaics and photoscience-related research to an even higher level of prominence both nationally and internationally,” he predicted.
While they may eventually lead to commercial products—a goal of the center and other Third Frontier programs—third-generation materials are still in the research and development phase, “holding promise but not proven,” Castellano noted.
Crystalline silicon, he continued, is considered first generation, perhaps decades ahead of third-generation descendants such as the dye-sensitized solar cells that will be investigated further during the three-year project.
But he is optimistic about the future of those solar cells because of their efficiency and, especially, low expense.
Nanoparticles in paint are often titanium dioxide, which is readily available, cheap and a semiconductor that can be made into thin films with low processing costs, Castellano explained. “It’s like dirt; you can do anything with it,” he said about the compound.
Attaching a dye sensitizer allows an onlooker to see the dye color in the films, he added, pointing out the potential use in architecture, for instance, of multicolored, photovoltaic (solar) panels on plastic.
In addition, Castellano said, these materials—unlike silicon—work well in diffuse light, generating usable electricity earlier in the morning and later in the evening. The fact that it does not need direct illumination by the sun is one reason for this kind of panel’s use, but more importantly, he said, it’s inexpensive to produce.
Other possible uses of the technology are “where the military comes in,” he said. Interest has been expressed, for example, in solar-powered tents that could be camouflaged with different combinations of dyes. Also, due to the films’ flexibility and light weight, they could be used to recharge batteries in the field and, because they’re cheap, it wouldn’t be a problem if a unit on the move had to leave them behind, according to Castellano.
Whatever the specific applications, the state is interested, through the center, in developing a comprehensive photovoltaics strategy and creating high-tech jobs that make Ohio a more desirable place to work, he said. “The expertise is in this region,” he added, and the center’s partners will be sharing theirs with each other during the project.