Researchers at the Thayer School of Engineering are pursuing a full patent for solar energy technology that makes future dependence on renewable resources more realistic, according to engineering professor Jifeng Liu, who led the research team.
The group which included Liu, Haofeng Li Th ’15 and Thayer research scientist Xiaoxin Wang has developed a process to create less expensive solar cells that are up to twice as efficient as the current technology, according to Liu.
Because current methods can harness only a “very small portion” of solar energy, amounting to less than 10 percent, the team’s findings could be “groundbreaking” in the field of renewable energy studies, Li said.
“The sun gives so much energy,” he said. “If we could find a way to utilize it in an efficient way, that would be important.”
The high cost of solar panels, which the researchers aim to reduce, is the main obstacle preventing mass-production of solar energy technology, Liu said.
“Your dollars per watt of electricity by solar [energy] could become comparable to the fossil fuels,” Liu said. “So this is basically for the long-term sustainability of our society in the world.”
By manufacturing single crystal-thin films made of compounds and elements like gallium arsenide, silicon and germanium directly on large surface areas of amorphous substrates like everyday glass, the method cuts the cost of solar energy that would otherwise depend on crystalline silicon solar cells, according to an article published by Global Solar Technology.
Solar-Tectic LLC, which sponsored the project, now has exclusive manufacturing licensing and sub-licensing rights to manufacturing the technology, Solar-Tectic’s founding manager Ashok Chaudhari said.
In July, Chaudhari invited scientists from the nation’s top universities to collaborate on a project that continued the research of his late father, Praveen Chaudhari. Dartmouth was the only university to respond within a few months, Chaudhari said.
“I was expecting a positive outcome, but I didn’t expect such a positive outcome,” Chaudhari said. “I really think that it’s going to be a breakthrough technology, and by that I mean that it will become the solar cell technology in the market, the one that will be used more than any other the dominant technology.”
The research group, which began the development process in August, filed for a provisional patent last month and is currently in the process of applying for a full patent, according to Liu.
Future collaboration between Solar-Tectic and Thayer is possible, particularly given the strength of Dartmouth’s entrepreneurial resources, Chaudhari said.
Although other faculty members are studying solar cells, Liu said he is unaware of anyone researching the process of converting light to electricity.
Chaudhari said he was surprised that Dartmouth scientists are not spending more time developing solar energy technology.
“At Dartmouth, [Liu] is the only one who’s working on solar energy, and that seemed kind of surprising to me given the fact that the Obama administration has made solar energy a number-one priority in the Department of Energy,” Chaudhari said. “I’m surprised that the Thayer School hasn’t done a lot more with solar energy.”
However, Liu said Thayer is currently hiring new faculty members in this developing field.
The researchers will focus on expanding the technology and attracting partners in order to facilitate prototype development, Liu said.
“We hope we can … scale it up to a level where some initial products can be made and really contribute to the solar industry,” Liu said.