Nardone works to make solar energy more reliable, cost efficient

Energy from the sun —it sounds so abundant, clean and sustainable. However, actually translating solar energy into electrical power is a fairly complicated and expensive process. Dr. Marco Nardone, a theoretical physicist in the School of Earth, Environment and Society, is working with the U.S. Department of Energy to make materials used in solar electricity technology more durable and less costly.

“Solar energy is going to explode, and there’s a growing market for it,” Nardone said. “The Department of Energy and others are putting a fair amount of research into it. The goal of our research is to make these commercially relevant technologies more reliable.”

He has been collaborating with the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Golden, Colo., through a three-year, $6 million grant from the Department of Energy. BGSU’s part of the overall funding is $225,000, which will support Nardone’s research and a graduate student for the project. BGSU is the only university working with NREL on the solar energy grant.

 

Nardone has already published scholarly papers in collaboration with the lab, and spent last summer in Golden working directly with researchers there, supported by a Building Strength grant through the BGSU Faculty Research Committee. He expects to have a BGSU graduate student in place this fall for the continuation of the research.

The problem with the solar cells used to collect the sun’s energy is that they tend to degrade over time and in certain weather conditions, Nardone said.

“They’re state-of-the-art photovoltaic devices, but they’re affected by light, humidity and temperature. They seem to perform differently depending on how they’re prepared. We’re using computer modeling to discover why they degrade and what adjustments might help to increase their reliability, which in turn reduces their cost per unit.”

In the energy world, cost is a prime consideration, and can be the determining factor in whether a company or municipality decides to invest in an alternative technology.

NREL is the main center for renewable energy research and has the most advanced equipment, Nardone said. He uses theory and computer modeling to help them understand the physics behind the technology. Using experimental data and measurements supplied by the lab, he tests different possibilities.

“If you put as much of the right physics as possible into the model, it should reveal what is happening,” he said.

There is still much to be done to make solar energy a more sustainable commodity, and not only in terms of cost, he said. For instance, the materials for the semiconductors and the metals for the panels that hold the cells, such as cadmium and lead, are toxic and need to be mined, which can be dangerous for workers and damaging to the landscape. Plus, once the solar panels have reached the end of their lives, they must be safely recycled and stored.

“We need to find more environmentally friendly materials,” Nardone said. “We have to find the balance. There is no perfect answer.”

A faculty member in the Department of Environment and Sustainability within the School of Earth, Environment, and Society, Nardone holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in environmental engineering and a master’s and doctoral degree in physics.