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Science Foundation Awards Collaborative Grants in Solar Energy Conversion

Tucson, AZ – Research Corporation for Science Advancement (RCSA), the nation’s oldest foundation devoted wholly to science, announced today its latest awards for high-risk/potentially high-reward research aimed at improving efficiencies in solar energy conversion to electricity and fuels. The awards – part of RCSA’s Scialog® initiative to advance transformational research – are called the Scialog Collaborative Innovation Awards. Scialog – short for science dialog – typically funds research based on peer-reviewed proposals submitted yearly by individual early-career researchers. These latest awards, however, fund research proposed by Scialog grantees working in collaborative groups, rather than independently. The research proposals emerged from a recent three-day Scialog conference at which grantees shared knowledge, insights, and hypotheses. An additional group of renowned researchers, who joined the grantees at the conference, recommended these award-winners. Those renowned researchers were led by Dr. Nathan Lewis, the George L. Argyros Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. This year’s Scialog Collaborative Innovation Awards go to the following three teams, with each team receiving a combined grant award of $100,000 to research a specific topic:
  • Team 1: “Holographic Spectrum Splitting for Multijunction Organic Photovoltaics”
    • Sean Shaheen, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Denver
    • Raymond Kostuk, Professor of Engineering and Optical Sciences, University of Arizona
    • Christine Luscombe, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, University of Washington.
Further explanation: Photovoltaic cells that produce electricity from sunlight only convert a small percentage of incident sunlight into electricity. One way to make them more efficient is to stack their “junctions,” the areas that do the actual work of converting sunlight to electricity, on top of one another. Junctions are sensitive to specific colors in the spectrum of visible light: some junctions are sensitive to red light; some are sensitive to blue; others are sensitive to the other colors that make up sunlight. Some solar devices with stacked junctions already exist, but they are very expensive, which means they are used mostly on orbiting satellites and other important projects. This team hopes to successfully deploy a special laser-cut diffraction filter based on the principles of the hologram to spread and intensify the colors in sunlight so that the junctions sensitive to different colors of light can be placed in flat rows. Their hope is that the resulting solar devices can be manufactured using “organic” – a chemists’ code word for “carbon-based” – materials that are generally cheap and readily obtainable.
  • Team 2: “Fractals as a Promising Geometry for Enhanced Solar Energy Conversion”
    • Frank Osterloh, Professor of Inorganic Chemistry, University of California – Davis
    • Sean Shaheen, Associate Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of Denver
    • Richard Taylor, Professor of Physics, University of Oregon
    • Boaz Ilan, Associate Professor of Applied Math, University of California – Merced.
Further explanation: Fractals are naturally repeating patterns found widely in nature – from vast stretches of rugged seacoast to the finest veins in the tiniest of plant leaves. This team hopes to use branching fractals – the type found in leaves and trees – to optimize the collection of sunlight, while reducing the cost of doing so, in two different projects: 1) creating organic photovoltaic cells that rely on nanoscale fractal pathways for the direct conversion of sunlight to electricity; and 2) growing bacteria in fractal patterns to maximize the production of renewable liquid fuel.
  • Team 3: “Novel Low-Loss Plasmonic Waveguides to Create High Efficiency PV from Ultra-Thin Organic and Low-Purity Earth Abundant Inorganic Layers”
    • Janelle Leger, Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Western Washington University
    • Christine Luscombe, Assistant Professor of Materials Science and Engineering, University of Washington
    • Hugh Hillhouse, Rehnberg Chair Professor of Chemical Engineering, University of Washington.
Further explanation: A plasmonic waveguide is a nanostructure – a very small object, smaller than the wavelength of a photon, the basic unit of light. When light hits certain types of nanostructures, photons are absorbed in a process that excites the motion of electrons at a metal surface. The result is a plasmon-polariton, or single photon coupled with a mode of oscillation of the electrons that are confined in the nanostructure. These plasmon-polaritons can therefore carry light energy in a structure that is much smaller than light itself. Plasmon-polaritons were first discovered at the interface of different nanostructured materials – dielectrics (material like glass or air) and noble metals (gold, silver) but these structures have so far not been able to carry light energy very far. The team hopes to create a new type of nanostructure that allows light energy to be trapped as plasmon-polaritons that can carry light energy much farther. If they can do this, the next step would be to see if the plasmon-polaritons they create can be coaxed into enhancing a thin film’s ability to absorb photons. Thin-film solar panels generate electric current when electrons in the material absorb photons and become excited enough to move through the film and create electricity. If these structures can be built to oscillate at the right frequencies, they can help the films absorb more light. The result: a supercharged solar panel. The Scialog Collaborative Innovation Awards are an example of the commitment to transformative research that has been a hallmark of RCSA’s history, which will be celebrated next year in its 100th Anniversary. During the past 100 years, the foundation has supported fundamental research leading directly to such modern scientific and technological achievements as rocketry, lasers, MRI machines, “wonder drugs” such as corticosteroids, nuclear medicine and atomic science, among many other achievements. “Scialog is an experiment to see if we can accelerate the pace of breakthrough discoveries, initially in solar energy conversion” said RCSA President and CEO James M. Gentile. “The program rewards risk-taking in science, even if failure is a significant possibility. Time and again, we have seen that it is the people who push the limits of what we think we know, who come up with the tools and knowledge we need to achieve our greatest advances.” For further information: contact Emma Mittelstadt at Goodman Media International, 212-576-2700 x250 or emittelstadt@goodmanmedia.com. About Research Corporation for Science Advancement – Research Corporation for Science Advancement – formerly known as Research Corporation – was founded in 1912 and is the second-oldest foundation in the United States (after the Carnegie Corporation) and the oldest foundation devoted wholly to science. Research Corporation is a leading advocate for the sciences and a major funder of scientific innovation and of research in America’s colleges and universities. Follow updates from RCSA on Facebook and Twitter. ###

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