(from The Diplomat newsletter article, April 2009)
The flow of electrons creates electricity. Finding a way to make the flow more efficient, Kate Plass suggested, could help improve solar cell technology.
Plass, assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry at Franklin & Marshall College, has received a two-year, $50,000 grant from an American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund to further her research aimed at creating less-expensive solar cell technology.
“If we can see how these molecules are arranged on a microscopic level, we can better understand how to improve the flow of electricity in the polymers that make up solar cells,” Plass said.
Technically speaking, Plass and a team of student researchers will be studying the adsorption of thiophenes at liquid/solid interfaces. Thiophene molecules are a key building block in a large number of electrically conductive polymers being developed for solar cells.
Improving the efficiency of the polymers could translate to more-efficient solar technology and more demand for the technology down the road.
“The amount of energy that you get out of the new, inexpensive photovoltaic cells that have the potential to revolutionize the availability of solar energy is pretty low right now,” Plass said. “This is because the generated electricity has to cross from one material to another, and some is lost along the way.”
Working with two Hackman Scholars this summer, Felicia Lucci ’11 and Jolie Blake ’10, Plass will study the structure of interfaces that model those in solar cells and try to learn how to control their behavior.
Using an electron microscope, the research team will be able to “see” the placement of molecules stuck on a solid surface.
“We want to figure out how to change the molecules so that the pattern they form looks how we want it to look. It is this placement of the molecules at a solid interface that could influence properties like how fast electrons jump between the solid and the molecules,” Plass said.
Plass explained that there is a lot of work to be done yet to improve the efficiency of solar cells, and going from manipulating molecules to creating more-efficient solar cells will not happen quickly or easily.
“If we want to use solar energy on a large scale in 10 or 20 years, there are questions to be answered, like, ‘how can we make cheap materials more efficient?’ and ‘how can we use chemical processes for storing energy?’ These are problems that require more research to answer fully,” Plass said.
Earlier this year, Plass received a $30,000 start-up grant from the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation to get her research off the ground. This grant was followed by the Cottrell College Science Award from the Research Corporation for Science Advancement, in the amount of $45,000.
These grants fund her research into new materials for solar energy conversion devices, research being done this semester with the help of Dennis Malamut ’09 and Marilyn Weiss ’09.
This work will be continued this summer by two students, who will also be supported in part by the Hackman Research Program, Alex Wiltrout ’11 and Mona Lotipifour ’12.