Published: Oct. 14, 2009

Scientists developing more efficient solar energy solutions

Contact(s): Michael Steger College of Natural Science office: (517) 432-4561 stegerm@msu.edu, James McCusker Chemistry office: (517) 355-9715 ext. 106, jkm@chemistry.msu.edu

EAST LANSING, Mich. — A collaboration of chemists, mathematicians and engineers at Michigan State University is driving to improve solar panel technology, backed by a $1.9 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

The three-year grant comes from American Recovery and Reinvestment Act monies and will focus on developing methods for making a new class of solar cells from cheaper materials.

"For renewable energy to succeed, it has to get to a point where it is economically competitive with current technology," said chemistry Professor James McCusker, the project leader. "This means we need totally transformational technologies."

Today's solar panels are based on science worked out when the Beatles' "Good Day Sunshine" was new to the airwaves, McCusker said. Their primary light absorber is extremely pure - and costly -- silicon. Electricity produced by solar panels today costs two or three times as much as energy produced by coal.

"With estimates showing global power consumption tripling by 2050, we need to have scalable approaches that balance cost efficiency with environmental stewardship," McCusker said. "Only solar can be scalable to the amounts required."

Solar energy is plentiful, if underutilized: The amount that hits the Earth's surface in one hour equals the energy humans consume in a year.

The group is developing a solar cell based on a design that combines a dye with an inexpensive semiconductor -- titanium dioxide - instead of silicon. Titanium dioxide is an opaque white pigment commonly used in paint and other consumer products. Applying advanced materials and nanoparticle technology can make electron conduction more efficient, researchers said.

The efficiency of these devices is around 11 percent, McCusker said, but that requires using a liquid electrolyte. His project will use a more efficient and inexpensive solid-state material.

The complexity of developing new approaches for converting sunlight into energy requires interaction among a variety of specialists. Research team members include chemical engineer Lawrence Drzal; chemists McCusker and Greg Baker; and mathematicians Keith Promislow and Andrew Christlieb. The mathematicians will develop modeling to efficiently guide the chemists, who experiment with materials alongside chemical engineers.

McCusker leads a research group at MSU that is deeply involved in many areas of solar energy research. Some of his other research, supported by the U.S. Department of Energy, focuses on using other abundant elements such as iron and copper.

"To properly address the future demands of energy, we need to first solve the science in order to develop the technology for tomorrow," McCusker said. "It takes a long time and much collaboration, but our job as scientists is to conquer the fundamental hurdles and address the scientific problems, so companies can then build and develop the technologies needed based on the science."

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Michigan State University has been advancing knowledge and transforming lives through innovative teaching, research and outreach for more than 150 years. MSU is known internationally as a major public university with global reach and extraordinary impact. Its 17 degree-granting colleges attract scholars worldwide who are interested in combining education with practical problem solving.

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James McCusker, MSU professor of chemistry

James McCusker, MSU professor of chemistry

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