Working on the sun: UO researchers pioneering solar energy

Groundbreaking energy research is taking place at the University of Oregon.

When UO President Michael Schill announced that research is a top priority under his leadership, Shannon Boettcher and a team of graduate students took up the call. Their work on the production of low-cost, high-performance solar panel cells could change the solar energy business as it’s currently known.

Dr. Boettcher and his team received a $225,000 grant from SunShot – an initiative set up by the U.S. Department of Energy Solar Energy Technologies Office. SunShot’s main goal is to make solar energy less expensive than electricity from coal by 2020, Boettcher said.

The project that Boettcher and his team are working on has been in place for the last six years. The beginning of the program took place under a grant from the Bridging Research Interactions through collaborative Development Grants in Energy funding program.

“It’s motivated by a big need in solar technology,” Boettcher said about the project. “We are running up against the efficiency [of] performance limits of the current technology we use.”

Annie Greenaway, a graduate student in the chemistry department, latched on to the program because of her interest in making science beneficial and relevant to society.

“I wanted to do this particular work,” Greenaway said. “It was something that was very interesting to me.”

Greenaway was drawn to this particular science because she feels that renewable energy is a way to make science socially relevant. The semiconductors that the team are working on potentially boost the efficiency of solar cells by 50 percent. They will cut costs, improve safety and reduce waste during production.

The current widely-used method makes the crystals in solar cells with gaseous metals. This process creates high volumes of waste as a “significant fraction” of the gas is lost, Boettcher said.

Efficiency is only one item on the list. The gases are also highly toxic and have resulted in deaths in the past, before safety methods surrounding production were refined. Those safety precautions also add to the costs of an already expensive account.

Boettcher’s team is developing a new method that doesn’t use a gas or liquid precursor and instead uses solids, growing the same crystals with significantly less waste.

Jason Boucher, a PhD student in the Physics department, has been working on this project since it was awarded its first grant. While he was an undergraduate at Seattle Pacific University, a course in alternative energy sparked his interest. An internship at the National Renewable Energy Lab in Colorado sent him to Boettcher’s lab.

“I thought it was one of the most important problems that we are facing — the way that we generate energy that is clean and sustainable,” Boucher said.

That attitude runs throughout the team. Each member is passionate about the work they are doing and the effect it is having.

“I choose the research projects I work on because I think, ‘if we can get them to work, will it make a difference?’ ” Boettcher said. “If this works out the way we want it to, will the world care? And in this case in particular, yeah, it will be a big deal.”

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Max Thornberry

Max Thornberry

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