A University of Idaho professor is devising a new form of solar cell she says could lead to a breakthrough that would make solar energy commercially feasible.
Chemist Pam Shapiro, her graduate students and her colleagues at the university are working on creating better materials and combining them in new ways that could more than double the efficiency of present solar cells. If successful, she said the new technology could help the U.S. break its oil dependency.
"People are trying to make solar cells that are more efficient," Shapiro told The Lewiston Tribune. "But it's so much cheaper to use fossil fuels, despite all the obvious advantages of solar cell technology."
So far, Shapiro's team has created a compound called a "quantum dot" that is made of elements that include copper, indium and selenium. Shapiro said that the quantum dots would be embedded between layers of a solar cell and would absorb energy that is otherwise wasted due to overheating.
"These solar cells based on quantum dots aim to make better use of that excess energy," Shapiro said.
She said her team has created the quantum dots, but that a working prototype is years away and completion will likely require the combined skills and knowledge of her colleagues at the school.
"Collaboration is a big thing," she said. "Funding agencies are encouraging it. You have to be a jack of all trades, and a master of none."
Some of the research money for the program comes from a federal and state partnership called Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research. Federal money must be matched by state money.
Don Evans is the outreach specialist for the program and has asked state lawmakers to visit the university so that matching funds from the state can be approved and research on the solar cells can continue.
Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, and Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, have both visited the school. Ringo, a member of the joint House-Senate appropriations committee, recently visited UI materials scientist Eric Aston.
"It was enormously interesting for me," Ringo said. "I think it underscored for me the importance of keeping those research dollars coming."