New organic materials for creating advanced, flexible, light-weight solar cells and electronics for military and civilian use in remote areas away from power grids will be the focus of a new research center directed by Enrique Gomez, professor of chemical engineering and materials science and engineering at Penn State.
The Center for Self-Assembled Organic Electronics (SOE) will be funded by a $7.5 million, five-year, Multidisciplinary University Research Initiatives grant from the Office of Naval Research.
“This new center is focused on developing strategies for controlling the structure of organic electronic materials at the nanoscale,” Gomez said. “The center researchers will integrate chemical synthesis, theory and simulations, and state-of-the-art characterization, to develop the next generation of materials capable of converting sunlight to electricity.”
Researchers at the center hope to achieve this by creating molecules for solar cells that assemble themselves with nanometer and even molecular precision into a nanostructure needed for organic solar cells to efficiently convert sunlight into electricity. The light-to-electricity conversion process in an organic solar cell starts at the interface between a “donor” material and an “acceptor” material.
The donor material “donates” a photo-excited electron to the acceptor material to begin generating electricity from sunlight. For this process to work properly, a relatively large surface area between the two materials within an organic solar-cell device is crucial for efficient transfer. However, at the same time, the charge has to leave the device to be used for energy. Therefore, organic solar cells require an intricate nanostructure that provides both a relatively large amount of surface area and pathways for charge carriers to exit the device into an external circuit.
Despite these design challenges, organic molecules enable solar cells to be lightweight and flexible, which is currently difficult to achieve with commercial materials. These light and flexible solar cells provide a promising solution to the energy needs of the modern military operating in remote areas around the globe. Civilian applications are envisioned as well.
“Distributed power, or electrical power that is generated and supplied without the need of an electrical grid, is crucial for the growing needs of a military deployed throughout the globe, and for providing power to rural areas,” Gomez said. “Our goal is to create lightweight, flexible and robust solar cells that can be deployed in a variety of environments and scenarios.”
The SOE Center co-director is Alberto Salleo, professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford University. Other faculty in the SOE Center include Scott Milner, the William H. Joyce Chair Professor in the Department of Chemical Engineering at Penn State; John Asbury, associate professor of chemistry at Penn State; Zhenan Bao, professor of chemical engineering at Stanford University; Michael Toney, distinguished staff scientist at Stanford University’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory; Giulia Galli, professor of chemistry at the University of Chicago; Baskar Ganapathysubramanian, associate professor of mechanical engineering at Iowa State; and Iain McCulloch, professor of polymer materials at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Saudi Arabia and chair in polymer materials at Imperial College London.