FE -- Imagine being able to paint your roof with
enough alternative energy to heat and cool your home.
What if soldiers in the field could carry an energy
source in a roll of plastic wrap in their backpacks?
Those ideas sound like science fiction þu
particularly in the wake of the rising costs of fossil
But both are on the way to becoming reality because
of a breakthrough in solar research by a team of
scientists from New Mexico State University and Wake
While traditional solar panels are made of silicon,
which is expensive, brittle and shatters like glass,
organic solar cells being developed by this team
are made of plastic that is relatively inexpensive,
flexible, can be wrapped around structures or even
applied like paint, said physicist Seamus Curran,
head of the nanotechnology laboratory at NMSU. Nanotechnology,
or molecular manufacturing, refers to the ability
to build things one atom at a time.
The relatively low energy efficiency levels produced
by organic solar cells have been a drawback. To be
effective producers of energy, they must be able
to convert 10 percent of the energy in sunlight to
electricity. Typical silicon panels are about 12
percent energy conversion efficient.
That level of energy conversion has been a difficult
reach for researchers on organic solar technology,
with many of them hitting about 3 to 4 percent. But
the NMSU/Wake Forest team has achieved a solar energy
efficiency level of 5.2 percent. The announcement
was made at the Santa Fe Workshop on Nanoengineered
Materials and Macro-Molecular Technologies.
"This means we are closer to making organic solar
cells that are available on the market," Curran said.
Conventional thinking has been that that landmark
was at least a decade away. With this group's research,
it may be only four or five years before plastic
solar cells are a reality for consumers, Curran added.
The importance of the breakthrough cannot be underestimated,
"We need to look into alternative energy sources
if the United States is to reduce its dependence
on foreign sources," the NMSU physics professor said.
New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary
Rick Homans added, "This breakthrough pushes the
state of New Mexico further ahead in the development
of usable solar energy, a vital national resource.
It combines two of the important clusters on which
the state is focused: renewable energy and micro
nano systems, and underlines the strong research
base of our state universities."
A cheap, flexible plastic made of a polymer blend
would revolutionize the solar market, Curran said.
"Our expectation is to get beyond 10 percent in
the next five years," Curran said. "Our current mix
is using polymer and carbon buckyballs (fullerenes)
and good engineering from Wake Forest and unique
NSOM imaging from NMSU to get to that point."
NSOM or near-field scanning optical microscopy allows
them to scan objects too small for regular microscopes.
The development is an outgrowth of the collaborative's
work developing high-tech coatings for military aircraft,
a program supported by Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.,
and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Curran said.
Contact: Mary Benanti
New Mexico State University