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Solar & Alternative Energy

Atwater, Lewis to lead Dow-funded solar materials research at Caltech

SPIE Newsroom
16 November 2009

 The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Dow Chemical Company have announced a new solar-research collaboration aimed at developing the use of semiconductor materials that are less expensive and more abundant than those used in many of today's solar cells.

The four-year, $4.2 million effort will explore earth-abundant materials for solar-energy applications. The project is led by applied physicist Harry Atwater, a Fellow of SPIE and Caltech's Howard Hughes Professor, and chemist Nate Lewis, Caltech's George L. Argyros Professor. (Lewis and Atwater are pictured at right.)

Atwater serves as a program committee member and session chair for the Plasmonics: Nanoimaging, Nanofabrication, and their Applications conference at SPIE Optics + Photonics, and has contributed more than 40 papers to SPIE publications. Lewis served for several years as cochair of the SPIE conference on Detection and Remediation Technologies for Mines and Minelike Targets, and is also a regular contributor to SPIE publications.

As part of the agreement, Atwater, Lewis, and their team will develop new mineral-like electronic materials suitable for use in thin-film solar-energy-conversion devices.

"Development of materials that are abundant in the earth's crust will enable solar-energy technologies to ultimately scale to large volumes at low cost without concern about the materials' availability," says Atwater.

Most solar cells today are made with silicon, which is itself an abundant material. Still, silicon solar technology has a relatively higher cost than that of current thin-film solar materials like cadmium telluride and copper indium diselenide. But these inexpensive semiconductors pose a problem of their own: they contain materials too scarce to ultimately meet the demands of full-scale solar-energy technologies. That's why Atwater and Lewis are turning their attention to semiconductors found in the earth's crust.

"Use of earth-abundant materials can provide new technology options and could open new areas of design space," Lewis notes. "But it also brings new challenges. This project will develop the science and technology base for thin-film solar-energy conversion using these widely available materials."

Another part of the Dow-Caltech collaboration is the establishment of the Dow Chemical Company Graduate Fellowship in Chemical Sciences and Engineering. It will be granted to a second- or third-year doctoral student who shows excellence in research, leadership, and interpersonal effectiveness, and whose research program aligns with broad areas of interest to Dow, such as alternative energy sources, the development of novel specialty chemicals, and the investigation of new polymer systems. Dow's $500,000 gift will be matched by $250,000 in funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Matching Program.

Press release from Caltech
SPIE Newsroom video interview with Harry Atwater: Nanostructures for high-efficiency photovoltaics