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What can the sun do for you?

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Alex Jen, director of the UW Institute of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), points to a poster in Roberts Hall, explaining the work his team is doing on solar panel technology. The solar cells Jen has developed are made of a polymer that can absorb a greater range of the solar light spectrum.

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A solar cell powers a calculator inside Roberts Hall. The goal of the project, funded by the Department of Energy, is to “provide low-cost solar cells to every home.”

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One of the solar cells that have been developed by Jen’s team in MSE is made of silver (which is more stable in air, compared to traditional solar cells) and needs to be semi-transparent to allow solar energy to be absorbed.

With the rising cost of oil and tensions building in the Middle East, the need for more sustainable energy sources is becoming more urgent. Unfortunately, most alternate energy sources are more expensive than oil, restricting their marketability and usage. This is the problem that Alex Jen, director of the UW’s Institute of Materials Science and Engineering (MSE), has been trying to solve regarding solar power.

His team includes Christine Luscombe, assistant professor in MSE, Hong Ma, research assistant professor in MSE, John Rehr, professor of physics and David Ginger, assistant professor of chemistry.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) invested $900,000 in the project that Jen is leading at the institute. Instead of using the bulky opaque silicon solar cells that stretch out in deserts, his lab is developing a polymer, which he describes as being similar to the plastic used for laminate.

The goal of his project is to “offer low-cost solar cells to every home,” a goal that he shares with the Solar America Initiative (SAI) from the DOE. Steven Palmeri, project officer at the DOE’s Golden Field Office, said their goal was to “reach energy security and keep more energy dollars here.”

The funding for the project comes from the tax dollars allocated to the DOE budget. Palmeri said their program was technically funded by Congress. In addition to the DOE, Jen’s project receives funding from Intel and the Office of Naval Research, which took interest in the project after hearing about the funding from the DOE.

“It’s like a snowball effect,” Jen said.

The project is now working with the Institute of Advanced Materials and Technology (i-AMT), a UW spinoff company whose mission is to take the results of the research and “translate it into commercially viable technology to create social impact,” Jen said.

The polymer Jen’s team is developing is supposed to improve solar energy by reducing its cost and increasing its efficiency. According to Jen, an area of 150 square miles (roughly a tenth the size of Rhode Island), covered with 10-percent efficiency solar cells would generate enough electricity to power the whole United States.

While silicon solar cells can convert more than 20 percent of the sunlight they harvest into electricity, they are expensive to produce. Polymer solar cells would be less expensive to produce, but have only recently reached efficiency levels of 6 percent.

Jen's team is working on getting polymer solar cells to reach 10-percent efficiency levels or greater to make them cost-effective enough to manufacture at large scales. Polymer solar cells are also lighter, thinner and more flexible, enabling them to be placed on objects such as cell phones, laptops, backpacks and even in windows.

As for the costs of the polymer, it is said to match the cost of using fossil fuels.

“The silicon-based solar cell is five to six times more expensive than fossil fuels,” Jen said.

This matches with the SAI’s goal of achieving grid parity (the same cost per watt of power as using fossil fuels) for solar energy by 2015.

The polymer works with interface engineering, which “facilitates charge separation and charge collection” he said.

This concept is similar to charging up a battery, only in the polymer, it’s charged using solar energy. It’s possible to “tailor the absorption spectrum of a conjugated polymer to match the sun’s spectrum,” Jen said.

The polymer is translucent, and it eventually could coat all the windows of glass buildings, cars and houses and contribute to the clean energy usage of every household and business.

“The possibilities are extremely interesting and exciting,” Jen said.

Reach reporter Chaitra Sriram at news@dailyuw.com

Green power at the UW

In one year, the UW consumes about 295 million kilowatt hours of electricity at a cost of $15 million.

For coal: 80 cents per watt of power.

For silicone: $3 per watt of power.

Where the electricity comes from:

15 hydroelectric dams

1 wind farm

1 nuclear plant

1 natural gas plant

1 coal-burning plant

The UW’s natural-gas-generated electricity comes from a cogeneration facility in Oregon. The plant produces electricity and heat that results in greater efficiency and less waste.

93.7 percent of fuels used by the UW are renewable

Wind:

All of the wind power supplied to the UW comes from the Stateline Wind Farm – the largest wind farm in the United States

It takes 18 turbines to produce the wind power the UW consumes. Two of these turbines could fit in Husky Stadium.

Solar electricity:

The UW has two solar panel installations: at the Mechanical Engineering building and Merrill Hall.

Source: UW Facilities Services

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