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Pitt engineering faculty receive NSF grant to develop improved solar cell manufacturing

PITTSBURGH  (August 14, 2013) … One of the grand challenges of the 21st century, as identified by the National Academy of Engineering, is to make solar energy economical. Solar power is an attractive energy resource because it is renewable and abundant. It is also relatively free of problems associated with fossil fuels or nuclear energy, such as increasing fuel costs, waste disposal, heat dissipation, safety concerns, and the release of greenhouse gases. 

Towards meeting this grand challenge, principal investigator  Paul W. Leu , assistant professor of industrial engineering, and co-PI Kevin P. Chen, associate professor and Paul E. Lego Faculty Fellow of electrical and computer engineering, were awarded a $107,498 Early-concept Grants for Exploratory Research (EAGER grant) to develop a new process for the scalable laser manufacturing of more efficient solar cells. 

"We're exploring new structures, called photonic crystals, that are at the wavelength scale or smaller to better trap light within the absorbing region of the solar cell," Dr. Leu explains. "As demonstrated in nature with the colors you see in the morpho butterfly wing or peacock feather, these structures can control how light is reflected and absorbed. We're developing new laser technologies to scalably manufacture these 3D nanostructures into low-cost and efficient solar cells." 

The investigators will combine both simulations and experiments to explore the feasibility of using 3D silicon photonic crystals in solar cells. A new manufacturing process will be developed where the interference patterns between multiple laser beams will be used to fabricate complicated 3D nanometer length-scale structures. "The challenge is to quickly and easily manufacture these tiny structures over large length-scales," Dr. Leu explained. "These structures are so small that a solar cell will have about a trillion (10 12 ) of them." 

These research efforts will demonstrate the proof-of-concept for a 3D photonic crystal solar cell structure that exhibits enhanced efficiencies and that can be manufactured at production scale and low cost. This research will provide new understanding of how light interacts with different materials and develop new scalable processes for manufacturing nanostructures. Ultimately, the researchers hope this work will help bring solar cells to more residential houses, solar farms, and small villages around the world. 

About Dr. Leu 

Paul W. Leu joined the Department of Industrial Engineering in August 2010. He received his BS in mechanical engineering at Rice University and his master of science in mechanics of materials and PhD in mechanical engineering from Stanford University. He subsequently worked as a postdoctoral research fellow in the U.C. Berkeley Electrical Engineering Department as a member of the Berkeley Sensor and Actuator Center and with a joint-appointment in the Materials Division Center of Lawrence Berkeley. Dr. Leu's primary research interests include first principle simulations of material properties, combining physical simulations with optimization methods, and nanomaterial synthesis and characterization. His areas of expertise include nanomaterials, semiconductor processing, computer aided design, multiscale modeling, and semiconductor devices.

About Dr. Chen
Kevin P. Chen received his PhD in electrical engineering from the University of Toronto. He and his students engage in a wide spectra of interdisciplinary research and explore both technology frontiers and develop engineering solutions for sustainability, energy, bio-medical, homeland security, and etc. The group's expertise includes fiber optics, UV and ultrafast laser processing, microfabrication, finite element analysis, nuclear micro-engineering especially in tritium, and miniaturized photonic system integration. Dr. Chen is a 2007 recipient of National Science Foundation CAREER Award. 


Contact: Paul Kovach