8/28/2008

New F&M Chemist Sees Brighter, Cheaper Future for Solar Power

  • Kate Plass  

Solar power. A great idea until you see the price tag.

Kate Plass, assistant professor of chemistry at Franklin & Marshall College, wants to change that.

She and her students see a future when solar cells are made from readily available materials that cost less, making the technology more affordable.

Plass’ goal moved closer to realization recently thanks to a grant from The Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, which awarded F&M’s newest chemistry faculty member $30,000 to get her research off the ground. She is the first F&M faculty member to receive this prestigious award.

“With current technology, solar cell materials are either required to be of very high purity or of relatively rare elements, either of which results in high cost,” Plass said. “By making light absorbing materials that are small – allowing us to get around the requirement for high purity – and that consist of abundant elements, the cost of solar energy conversion could be decreased.”

The Dreyfus Foundation Award supports the research of new tenure-track faculty at primarily undergraduate institutions with the five-year grant that Plass plans to use for equipment and to pay students to work as research assistants. She hopes that the award will be first of many for her research.

Plass’ funded research project, titled “Synthesis, Surface Passivation, and Band Gap Tuning of Earth-Abundant Semiconductors for Solar Energy Conversion,” is an exciting start to what Chemistry Department Chair Phyllis Leber hopes will be a brilliant career at F&M.

“The Chemistry Department is extremely proud of Kate Plass, our new inorganic chemist,” Leber said. “It is both a testament to the scientific novelty and potential applicability of her work in solid-state chemistry encompassing environmental science and alternative energy and also an acknowledgement of our supportive undergraduate research environment.”

Plass said she owes thanks to Leber for nominating her for the award.

Plass, 30, earned her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Michigan in 2006. She recently completed two years of postdoctoral studies at California Institute of Technology, in Pasadena, Calif.

The research will take years, but she is confident and excited to get to work.

“Actual commercialization of this small-particle-based solar cell technology is pretty far away, but before it can ever happen we need to be able to synthesize the light-absorbing component materials and understand their properties,” Plass said.

For more information about Chemistry at F&M, visit the department Web page at www.fandm.edu/chemistry.xml.

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