The magazine for Western Washington University

Capturing the sun

Tougher, more flexible solar panels could harness the sun's energy at less than half the cost

Story by John Thompson

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Chemistry Professor David Patrick is the project leader | Photo by Rhys Logan | University Communications Intern
Patrick consults with graduate students Willie Benjamin, left, and Tristan Butler. | Photo by Rhys Logan | University Communications Intern
Different-colored dyes play a role in the next generation of solar energy collectors under development at Western. | Photo by Rhys Logan | University Communications Intern

Solar power and the Pacific Northwest – two terms that are mutually exclusive, right? Not if a team of researchers at Western produce what could be a game-changer in the realm of solar electricity.

Their goals are lofty: Build a completely new type of solar collector made from inexpensive plastic (gone are the large, fragile sheets of silicon-based photovoltaic cells) that not only works well on cloudy days but also produces electricity at about half the cost – or less – of current systems.

“Just think what the world could do with solar-collector systems that cut costs by a factor of two or more,” says Brad Johnson, the chair of Western’s Physics Department and a research member of Western’s Applied Materials Science and Engineering Center (AMSEC).

“The technology we are developing has the potential to produce solar electricity at prices approaching those of conventional non-renewable energy sources like coal and natural gas,” says Chemistry Professor David Patrick, project leader. “It’s not hard to see how, if successful, such a breakthrough could fundamentally alter the world’s energy landscape.”

The technology has fascinating and almost limitless options. Envision whole skyscrapers with “windows” that let in light as well as collect it for electricity, says Johnson. Or rugged power generators for use in the diffuse light of jungles or cloudy areas like the Pacific Northwest. Plus, these next-generation solar power collectors would be more durable and could take more of a beating than a traditional silicon array and still function efficiently.

The project is so well regarded that last year it was awarded a three-year, $970,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to help push it along, and more funds could be on the horizon as the project continues to gain steam.

The key to the new system is the polymers and multicolored dyes used in the plastic collectors. Each color allows for the collection of light in that part of the spectrum. Experimentation over the next few years will answer questions such as how the dyes can be layered on the polymer to make collection as efficient as possible.

A prototype of the new luminescent solar concentrator could be on a roof at Western collecting solar energy as soon as next year, Patrick says.

The AMSEC team working on the project comes from a number of departments at Western. Johnson and Patrick are working with Mathematics Associate Professor Stephen McDowall, Chemistry Assistant Professor John Gilbertson and AMSEC Assistant Professor Janelle Leger. About 15 to 20 undergraduates will have a chance to work on the project over the next two years, as well as a number of graduate students.

AMSEC, part of the College of Sciences and Technology, was founded in 2007 with support from the state Legislature with a mission to educate students in materials science, support interdisciplinary research and enhance regional industry competitiveness and innovation. It brings together faculty and students from Chemistry, Engineering Technology, Geology, Mathematics, and Physics for interdisciplinary collaboration to find solutions to complex, multifaceted problems.

Besides the solar-collector project, AMSEC is working on other research as well, from working with a polymer that could act as artificial muscle to developing nanoparticles that can relay real-time information from inside a cell within the human body.

“Working on projects like these gives our students incredible real-life experiences that are fabulous springboards to grad school and jobs in the private sector,” Patrick says. “They’re just invaluable.”