WWU receives $970,000 NSF grant for solar-energy research

Faculty at Western Washington University’s Advanced Materials Science and Engineering Center have been awarded a three-year $970,000 National Science Foundation grant to continue their research into producing the next generation of solar panels.

The AMSEC team is building and testing a new type of solar collector that uses a plastic polymer impregnated with special dyes to capture and collect the sunlight and transport that light to a system of silicon chips that turn it into electricity. Because the plastic solar collectors are much cheaper to produce than traditional silicon-based solar arrays, and because the new system is inherently more efficient – the new arrays will collect light from the entire visible spectrum instead of just from the red wavelength as silicon panels now do – the cost of producing a watt of electricity from these solar panels could be one-tenth the cost of using today’s traditional silicon panels.

“That’s our goal – to make a new solar collector that because of its inherent lower cost and higher efficiency will vastly outperform traditional solar-collector systems. The practical uses for this new system are uncountable – but just think what the world could do with solar-collector systems that cut costs by one whole magnitude,” said Brad Johnson, the chair of WWU’s Physics Department and a research member of AMSEC. “Telling someone that what now costs a dime will soon cost only a penny is a pretty strong argument for how important this breakthrough could be.”

The key to the new system are the polymers and dyes used in the plastic collectors. Each of the colored dyes would allow for the collection of light in that part of the spectrum, and experimentation over the next three years will answer questions such as how the dyes can be layered on the polymer to make collection as efficient as possible.

“It’s a fascinating project, and one with real, quantifiable benefit,” said Johnson. “We’re really excited to keep moving forward on it.”

The AMSEC team working on the project comes from a number of departments at WWU. Besides Johnson (Physics), also working the solar-collector project are AMSEC director David Patrick (Chemistry), Stephen McDowall (Mathematics), John Gilbertson (Chemistry) and AMSEC faculty member Janelle Leger. Fifteen to 20 undergraduates will have a chance to work on the project over the next three years, as well as a number of graduate students.

AMSEC was founded in 2007 with a mission to educate students in materials science, support interdisciplinary research, and enhance regional industry competitiveness and innovation. AMSEC brings together faculty and students from Chemistry, Engineering Technology, Geology, and Physics to facilitate interdisciplinary collaborations and find solutions to complex, multifaceted problems.

For more information on the solar-collector grant from the National Science Foundation, contact Brad Johnson at (360) 6540-3659 or brad.johnson@wwu.edu; for more information on AMSEC, contact David Patrick at (360) 650-3128 or david.patrick@wwu.edu.