Painting with the power of the sun growing closer to reality

Emily Sides

About five years ago, chemical engineering professor Brian Korgel imagined painting with an ink powered by solar cells.

Although his vision is not ready for commercial use, it is closer today than it has ever been.

Korgel explained his research to several hundred high school and middle school students during a “Hot Science – Cool Talks” lecture hosted by UT’s Environmental Science Institute on Friday.

Along with a team of researchers, Korgel is working on a way to insert small solar cells into ink, which could eventually make the liquid much cheaper and more efficient. Although Korgel said the best way to apply the ink is through a spray brush, it could be used on paper, cloth or building materials in the future.

The solar cells in the ink would be able to convert sunlight into electricity and could potentially power entire buildings. He called solar energy a revolution in energy technology that could eventually reduce dependency on fossil fuels.

“We need solar cell technology,” Korgel said. “There will be no fundamental innovations and grants unless we believe in it.”

As of now, Korgel has achieved 3-percent efficiency, which means that the solar cells injected into the ink are only converting 3 percent of the sun’s potential energy.

Before the product can be used commercially, the solar cells will need to achieve at least 10-percent efficiency. Although he could not provide an exact time line, Korgel estimated the technology might be ready in three to five years.

Korgel said he wants to find alternatives to bulky and expensive solar panels, which also contain harmful elements such as silicon and cadmium. The ink could reduce or eliminate these problems.

The ink would not be possible without advances in nanotechnology, which involves the investigation of nanomaterials that are 10,000 times thinner than a single strand of hair.

David Ozuna, a student at Murchison Middle School, said he attended the lecture for extra credit in his accelerated science class.

“Right now, we’re studying wavelengths in my class,” he said. “It was interesting to learn how people make solar panels and how people use them to get electricity from it.”

Kirstin Busch, science education graduate student, works with the “Hot Science – Cool Talks” outreach program for kindergarten through high school.

“A lot of times what’s in the textbooks is years old,” she said. “It’s not based necessarily on things being researched currently. It’s important for our kids to come here to get exposed and get excited about the possibilities.”