Chemist Chamberlain and UNI collaborators receive Iowa Power Fund award of $78,000

Friday, February 27, 2009

Award to fund research in solar cell materials

Brad Chamberlain, Luther College associate professor of chemistry, and collaborators at the University of Northern Iowa have received a $78,000 award from the Iowa Office of Energy Independence through the Iowa Power Fund. The award will provide one-year funding for a Luther/UNI collaborative project, "The Development of New Photosensitizers for Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells," which will seek to find a less expensive way to develop solar cells.

"The focus of the project is to develop solar cells from more robust and less expensive materials, and the ultimate goal is to incorporate these cells into a commercially feasible consumer device," said Chamberlain. "Ultimately, it could lead to more households and businesses utilizing solar technology."

Solar photovoltaic cells, cells that directly convert sunlight into electrical energy, are one of the more promising technologies for providing a clean and renewable energy future for Iowa. However, the high cost of manufacturing the current generation of photovoltaic cells presents a need for a new type of solar cell.

Thanks to its possible low cost advantage, the dye-sensitized solar cell is rapidly gaining attention, using light-absorbing dye to convert energy from photons of light into electricity, said Chamberlain.

"One of the long term ambitions for the dye-sensitized solar cell is the possibility of using dye-sensitized solar cells in paints for houses instead of installing big solar panels," said Chamberlain. There is no guarantee it would work or even happen in our generation, but you could potentially have a painted wall that is hooked up to electrical contacts operating as a solar cell, capturing and generating electricity."

Research will begin June 2009 when six undergraduate researchers, including two from Luther College, will synthesize and evaluate new dyes during a 10-week period. The research is funded by the IPF grant.

In the final weeks of the project, the students will work closely with engineers at the project's industrial partner, Distek Integration, and the department of Industrial Technology at the University of Northern Iowa to incorporate the new solar cells in a solar device.

While the cutting-edge research on solar cells is the focus of the project, Chamberlain is also excited about involving students in the research process. He said the hands-on experience of working on research projects energizes students differently than classroom lessons.

"Integrative research opportunities for students are the real practice of science," said Chamberlain. "It is important for students to experience an experiment or test that may not work the first, second or even third time."

"Experiencing it firsthand is vital because these students will be out there one day creating knowledge, and they need to develop a level of endurance and determination to overcome challenges and achieve the goal of their research."

With the possibility of dye-sensitized solar technology soon being commercially feasible, the project's long-term benefits include a revenue stream returning to the state of Iowa, either in the form of patent royalties or job creation.

At Luther College, building green technology and environmental stewardship are articulated goals in the college's strategic plan and a focus of all college operations. Chamberlain believes projects such as the dye-sensitized solar cell research demonstrate the college's efforts to pursue and achieve sustainability on campus.

"Iowa is well on its way to becoming a leader in solar energy research and development, and this project will help train students in this alternative energy field," said Chamberlain. "These research projects will help Luther in its efforts to build sustainability as one of its emphases."

The project is interdisciplinary, involving work primarily in chemistry at Luther and UNI with support from physics at UNI. The team intends to use the IPF award as seed money for a larger, multi-year proposal to the National Science Foundation.

Chamberlain was also recently awarded a grant from the Grow Iowa Values Fund for financial support of a two-year research project titled "A New Class of Plant-Based Plastics Derived from Soybean and Corn Oil." Research for that project will begin during the 2009 spring semester.

Chemist Chamberlain and UNI collaborators receive Iowa Power Fund award of $78,000