Scientists delve into solar technology challenges

Imagine that the next time your home or apartment building needs sprucing up, it could be redecorated with a paint that would harness the sunâÄôs energy and turn it into electricity. Though thatâÄôs not a reality yet, materials science professor Eray Aydil said itâÄôs a viable vision âÄî but there are discoveries that have to be made first. And thatâÄôs the kind of research a new National Science Foundation solar energy initiative is looking to support. It has set aside five million dollars to fund collaborative basic research aimed at making breakthroughs in solar energy use âÄî which a Saturday workshop at the University of Minnesota began planting seeds for. Hosted by the UniversityâÄôs Institute for Mathematics and its Applications , the workshop introduced a mixed audience of scientists to the challenges of developing more efficient and cost effective solar energy technology. At the workshop, Aydil discussed the potential of the sun to be a major sustainable energy source. Covering an area the size of Texas with existing solar cells could supply the global energy demand, he said. The trouble is that current solar technology is too expensive to compete with coal and fossil fuel. Cost is coming down âÄî solar-generated electricity should equal the cost of electricity from the grid by 2015 âÄî but Arthur Nozik , Department of Energy senior research fellow, said thatâÄôs not cheap enough to quickly make the sun a major energy source. Although thereâÄôs enough fossil fuel to last another hundred years, the need for carbon-free energy is more immediate. âÄúAlong the current path, we wonâÄôt be generating enough carbon-free energy to meet climate-change goals,âÄù he said. For that, he said âÄúwe need a revolution.âÄù Collaboration may be the key to spurring that revolution. Addressing the audience of chemists, materials scientists and mathematicians, Henry Warchall , NSF Applied Mathematics program director, said the NSF solar energy initiative is trying to âÄústir the potâÄù. âÄúThe idea is to mix up the community,âÄù he said. In science research, he added, the new ideas usually come at the boundaries of established disciplines, where the areas overlap. NSF has always funded basic research, but now itâÄôs starting to encourage research in areas of big need, one of which is sustainability, Warchall said. This can be thought of as a pilot project, to see whether combining three communities that didnâÄôt work together before can be helpful, he added. Collaborative research isnâÄôt unusual âÄî more and more important problems require a multi-disciplinary approach, IMA director Fadil Santosa said. WhatâÄôs unusual about this, Aydil said, is the involvement of mathematicians. Mathematicians are good at modeling physical processes, Warchall said, and itâÄôs good to bring in people from varying fields to solve a problem. Alex Marker , a research fellow at Schott North America , which produces solar technologies, was one of a small minority of industry researchers at SaturdayâÄôs workshop. The Solar Energy Industries Association aims to make solar energy the source of 12 percent of the countryâÄôs electricity demand by 2020, a goal Marker said is reasonable. Increased use of solar technology is inevitable, but a breakthrough might make it faster, he said. Though the industry is working hard to make small improvements to existing technology, he said, âÄúItâÄôs nice to see the NSF putting some money into idea generation.âÄù