People, ideas, and discoveries that impact North Carolina and the world

March 2009

Making Solar Energy Affordable

The U.S. Department of Energy has awarded North Carolina State University's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering a $1.2 million grant to build and study tiny materials that can help generate renewable energy. Researchers will use the grant to learn more about how these nanostructures – objects hundreds of times smaller than the width of a human hair – can be engineered to mimic natural ways of converting energy into a form consumers can use.

Solar array.
Solar array at NC State.

The goal is to inexpensively convert sunlight or heat into electricity with little impact on the environment. The grant was secured in November by then-U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Dole and U.S. Rep. Brad Miller.

Results of the research could eventually help supply renewable electricity for motors, pumps and other industrial systems that account for 80 percent of industrial energy use worldwide. The work will continue to enhance NC State's reputation as a world leader in nanotechnology and energy research.

"This project will create the Nanotechnology Renewable Energy Laboratory, a new facility for energy research at NC State that will be available for campuswide use," said Dr. Gregory Parsons, the lead researcher on the grant and a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at NC State. "We hope to make it an educational node of the Nanotechnology Laboratory Program, now in development, which will offer nanotechnology-focused educational programs and degrees."

Parsons directs the NC State Nanotechnology Initiative, an interdisciplinary group that coordinates nanotechnology research across the university.

The grant will also strengthen bonds between several NC State research teams working in the field. Collaborating with Parsons on the project will be Drs. Orlin Velev, Michael Dickey, and Jesse Jur of the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering; Dr. Veena Misra of the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Dr. Christopher Gorman of the Department of Chemistry.

"I am pleased to help secure funding for NC State's exciting nanotechnology research," Dole said. "The university is continuing to lead the way in developing low-cost renewable energy that is home-grown and meets the challenges of our State. Projects such as this are critical to helping our nation achieve energy independence and create new jobs and companies in the clean energy economy here in North Carolina."

The laboratory created by the grant will contain specialized equipment for developing, testing and evaluating photovoltaic devices, which convert sunlight into electricity. Research teams will build on expertise in techniques such as atomic layer deposition – a process used to create extremely thin coatings – and couple them with developing fields such as electrochemical and solid-state growth. Another goal is the development of a new generation of inexpensive, flexible and environmentally friendly photovoltaic materials.

"Our nation must develop new, cheap, clean and renewable sources of energy," Miller said. "I am proud that NC State is leading the way. This project has the potential to improve America's energy security, help clean up the environment, and spur new industry in North Carolina."