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Professor develops solar technology

Newly patented device is 50 percent more efficient than popular silicon solar panels

By Domenica Ghanem
On February 10, 2013

A UConn associate professor has developed a new solar power technology called selective area atomic layer deposition (ALD).
Brian Willis, an associate professor of chemical, materials and biomolecular engineering, has been working with ALD to develop efficient solar energy. ALD is a technology that makes it possible to construct and test nano-sized antennas that can harvest more than 70 percent of the sun's electromagnetic radiation, while current silicon solar panels are only capable of collecting 20 percent. These rectennas also convert the sun's rays into usable electric power. The improved efficiency of these devices would make solar power a cost-effective replacement for conventional fossil fuels.
The Penn State Nanofabrication Facility is utilizing ALD technology to refine its nano-sized antenna devices. These devices are developed along with SciTech Associates, a company that is "focused on developing commercially viable scientific applications for emerging technologies."
Willis and his partners at Penn State Altoona have been working on this project for about a year now, but they still have a ways to go. They predict that it will take several years of basic research to perfect the science. Graduate students have conducted all of the research for this project.
"We are still in the basic science part of it," said Willis.
A grant from UConn's Center for Clean Energy Engineering in 2011 made it possible for Willis to design a prototype rectenna and do preliminary research with ALD. This groundwork helped to assure a $650,000 federal grant over three years from the National Science Foundation.
"It usually takes many rounds of funding to get a project completed," said Willis.
Since typical research grants are not usually enough to complete a project, Willis said that they "look for milestones" in their research. The next step for this team of researchers will be to test and improve the efficiency of rectenna prototypes. Since this method for retrieving and converting solar power is entirely new, it is hard to say how expensive the new technology will be until they get further along with the project, but the more efficient the process is, the more cost-competetive it can be with other energy sources in the future.
This patented, innovative method can also be used to enhance other areas of science, including the conversion of photo energy into electrical energy, and infrared sensing.

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