Cheaper Solar Power: The Promise of Nanotech

GC Ph.D. student Andrew Levine is part of a research team that developed new nanomaterials that may lead to cheaper solar energy. 

The sun is a clean and plentiful source of energy, yet current methods of harnessing solar power are expensive and inefficient. Even after years of incremental improvements, commercial solar cells are only about 20 percent efficient — meaning they are able to convert about 20 percent of the energy they capture into usable current.

Today’s solar cells are made of silicon. As an alternative, scientists at The Graduate Center’s Advanced Science Research Center (ASRC) recently developed nanomaterials that use a process called singlet fission to produce and extend the life of harvestable light-generated electrons. These nanomaterials could increase the potential efficiency of solar cells to 44 percent, a finding the researchers described in a paper published last month in the Journal of Physical Chemistry.

The nanomaterials were made by modifying organic materials typically found in dyes, explains Andrew Levine, lead author of the paper and a chemistry Ph.D. student at The Graduate Center. “These dyes — one is very similar to Ferrari Red — are very good at absorbing light,” he says. “We can tune their electronic properties by changing the molecule, and take advantage of the way it converts solar energy into electricity.”

The team’s next challenge is to develop a method of harvesting the solar charges created by their new nanomaterials. “It’s exciting because if we can get to a point where we can make devices, and we can make them relatively cheaply — which is the draw for using organics — then we have something that’s viable for the market,” he says.

Levine came to the project with experience: While he was in high school, he attended solar-power conferences, and in the summer between his junior and senior years at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he worked as a solar-energy contractor, thanks to his mother, who worked in the industry. After earning a master’s in science teaching, he taught chemistry, physics, and astronomy in New York City high schools for five years.

But he missed working in a lab — he’d previously worked as research assistant at Boston College — and decided to enroll in The Graduate Center’s Ph.D. program. At the ASRC, Levine is part of the Nanoscience Initiative, where Professor Adam Braunschweig (GC/Hunter, Chemistry) is his mentor. Braunschweig is also the lead researcher on the project.

Levine has worked on the solar energy project for two and a half years, and is looking forward on starting on the next steps. “My interest in science developed into a desire to be on the forefront of research on improving solar cells,” he says. “It’s one of the many renewable sources of energy that we’re going to need to combat global warming.”

Submitted on: FEB 13, 2019

Category: Chemistry | General GC News | Student News