SANTA FE -- Imagine being able to paint your roof with enoughalternative energy to heat and cool your home. What if soldiers in thefield could carry an energy source in a roll of plastic wrap in theirbackpacks?
Those ideas sound like science fiction -- particularly in the wake of the rising costs of fossil fuel.
But both are on the way to becoming reality because of abreakthrough in solar research by a team of scientists from New MexicoState University and Wake Forest University.
While traditional solar panels are made of silicon, which isexpensive, brittle and shatters like glass, organic solar cells beingdeveloped by this team are made of plastic that is relativelyinexpensive, flexible, can be wrapped around structures or even appliedlike paint, said physicist Seamus Curran, head of the nanotechnologylaboratory at NMSU. Nanotechnology, or molecular manufacturing, refersto the ability to build things one atom at a time.
The relatively low energy efficiency levels produced byorganic solar cells have been a drawback. To be effective producers ofenergy, they must be able to convert 10 percent of the energy insunlight to electricity. Typical silicon panels are about 12 percentenergy conversion efficient.
That level of energy conversion has been a difficult reach forresearchers on organic solar technology, with many of them hittingabout 3 to 4 percent. But the NMSU/Wake Forest team has achieved asolar energy efficiency level of 5.2 percent. The announcement was madeat the Santa Fe Workshop on Nanoengineered Materials andMacro-Molecular Technologies.
"This means we are closer to making organic solar cells that are available on the market," Curran said.
Conventionalthinking has been that that landmark was at least a decade away. Withthis group's research, it may be only four or five years before plasticsolar cells are a reality for consumers, Curran added.
The importance of the breakthrough cannot be underestimated, Curran said.
"We need to look into alternative energy sources if the UnitedStates is to reduce its dependence on foreign sources," the NMSUphysics professor said.
New Mexico Economic Development Department Secretary RickHomans added, "This breakthrough pushes the state of New Mexico furtherahead in the development of usable solar energy, a vital nationalresource. It combines two of the important clusters on which the stateis focused: renewable energy and micro nano systems, and underlines thestrong 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 fiveyears," Curran said. "Our current mix is using polymer and carbonbuckyballs (fullerenes) and good engineering from Wake Forest andunique 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 workdeveloping high-tech coatings for military aircraft, a programsupported by Sens. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., and Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M.,Curran said.
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