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University of Houston physicist part of major solar energy research team

A University of Houston physicist is part of a multi-institution team that has received an $18.5 million grant to develop new technologies to harness solar power more efficiently and economically.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) have jointly funded the establishment of a new national Engineering Research Center (ERC), which will oversee the research and development of advanced solar photovoltaic technologies that can provide a large-scale, affordable and domestic sustainable energy source.

The ERC includes researchers from 11 universities, including UH's Alex Freundlich, an expert and pioneer in the field of quantum and nano-architectured photovoltaics. Arizona State University is the lead institution and some 50 companies also will be involved in the project with additional technical and financial support to help the ERC meet its objectives faster.

The ERC for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, or QESST, is charged with accelerating the United States' commercialization of solar energy technologies through cutting-edge research, partnerships with industry and expanding educational opportunities in energy engineering.

QESST's overarching goals are ambitious: Develop affordable photovoltaic technologies that can provide a majority of new electricity generation in the U.S., as well as provide power for up to 1.5 billion people around the world who have little or no access to it.

Photovoltaics (PV) is a method of generating electrical power by converting sunlight into direct current electricity using semiconductors. Photovoltaic cells and panels are typically made of silicon.

Researchers will use advanced materials and quantum mechanics, one of the greatest discoveries of the 20th century, to overcome existing technological barriers to generating more solar energy. Quantum mechanics is used to make devices smaller (thinner), more efficient and multi-functional.

"All of the academic affiliates in this project have established themselves as key players in the solar photovoltaic arenas," said Freundlich, the QESST principal investigator at UH. "In tackling the grand challenge of making solar energy more affordable, the center will build its research and development efforts on three vertically integrated thrusts that will address barriers from basic science to devices all the way to terawatt scale manufacturing."

Freundlich, who is with UH's Center for Advanced Materials, will address the project's fundamental science and material engineering aspects. In particular, Freundlich and his team will explore novel device concepts and nano-materials that could lead to breakthroughs in the efficiency and cost of PV devices, which could revolutionize the PV industry.

Freundlich has a strong track record in technology transfer to industry. Several of his patents are actively licensed to industry, generating significant revenues for UH.

"ERCs are the crown jewel of the National Science Foundation's science and engineering program," Freundlich said. "What's unique about QESST is that this is the first ERC to be jointly funded by the NSF and DOE and it's the first pure solar ERC in the nation."

The grant will fund the ERC for five years. Freundlich's share totals about $1 million.

The UH team also will support the educational goals by reaching out to K-12 students and providing research training for undergraduates and high school teachers.

Contact: Laura Tolley
University of Houston

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