Researchers use nanotechnology to increase solar power efficiency

Trevor Heise

Researchers at UT are working to improve the efficiency of solar panels, which could lead to lower energy costs in Texas, according to Brian Korgel, chemical engineering professor.

Korgel spoke at the UT Energy Symposium on Thursday about increasing access to solar and nanotechnology in Texas.

Korgel’s team is replacing silicon slabs in solar panels with cadmium telluride ink, a new synthetic material made of crystals, because the material is smaller and the crystals absorb sunlight better. 

“In order to absorb light with silicon, you have to have layers of more than 50 microns [on the panel],” Korgel said. “A single junction cell is limited to 31 percent efficiency at most.”

Nanotechnology had not been used in the solar energy field before, Korgel said. 

“At the time [we started], it wasn’t obvious you could actually make this material,” Korgel said. “Nobody had used nanomaterials to make solar cells. It was a really interesting synthetic challenge.”

According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, California leads the nation in solar power production, while Texas ranks eighth. The oil lobby’s presence in Texas makes securing funding for solar technology advancement difficult, Korgel said. 

“The challenge in our state is the oil and the oil lobbying,” Korgel said.

Varun Rai, assistant professor of public affairs and the organizer of the UT Energy Symposium, said his goal for the symposium was to encourage dialogue between people throughout the University and city about pressing environmental issues. 

“The seminar has great reach,” Rai said. “When my colleagues have someone important in mind, they’ll put [the potential speaker] in touch with me and I put them in.”

The symposium will help increase communication between professors across the University, according to Trevor Udwin, a public affairs and energy and earth resources graduate student.

“I think in a large college like this, I think a lot of people in different colleges who should be talking to each other, don’t,” Udwin said.

Korgel said he is optimistic about the prospects both for developing new nanotechnologies for solar power production and expanding research at UT. He said he believes the students at the University have the potential to fix environmental issues themselves.

“One of my students started his own nanotech company from our research,” Korgel said. “He went from being a student at UT to creating his own job.”