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STAR Grantee Develops Potentially Inexpensive Nanotube Solar Technology

Somenath Mitra, along with researchers at the New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT), has developed a potentially cheap solar technology which can be painted or printed on flexible plastic sheets. The benefits could be enormous to the consumer, producer, and the environment.  And while it may seem like something out of science fiction, it’s quickly becoming a reality.  According to Mitra it’s actually a relatively simple process.

Dr. Mitra is a former STAR grantee who has an extensive background dealing in nanotechnology.  As a STAR researcher Mitra worked to develop sensing systems that drew heavily on the nanoscale properties of carbon nanotubes.  This project led to better understanding of carbon nanotube self-assembly and function.  He has now worked to bring carbon nanotubes into the world of solar technology.  Solar technology, along with most forms of renewable energy, requires expensive and energy-intensive infrastructure.  Mitra’s technology, however, diverges from standard photovoltaic cells which are silicon-based.  Instead it creates organic solar cells from polymers, a simpler and more affordable alternative.

When sunlight hits these organic solar cells positive and negative charges are created.  The cell, as Mitra and his team at NJIT designed it, is able to separate these charges to create a current.  It contains carbon nanotube complexes as well as another type of carbon molecule called a fullerene.  When the sunlight hits the polymer the fullerenes are able to grab the excited electrons and the nanotubes conduct them, thus creating a sustained current. The technology has endless possibilities once you realize that the nanotubes can be turned into a paint.  “Once you develop a paint,” Mitra says, “you can make a large area into a solar panel very easily.”  This will be applicable to the exterior wall of a building, a rooftop, or even a car.  Mitra goes on, “Imagine some day driving in your hybrid car with a solar panel painted on the roof, which is producing electricity to drive the engine.”  The cells are simple, inexpensive to make, and incredibly energy-efficient.  The technology is still in its developmental phases and far from the market.  But it is an extremely promising and hopeful direction for renewable energy.

Past grant:

http://cfpub.epa.gov/ncer_abstracts/index.cfm/fuseaction/display.abstractDetail/abstract/6125/report/0

NJIT Press Release:

http://www.njit.edu/publicinfo/press_releases/release_1040.php

Publication in Journal of Materials Chemistry:

A fullerene–single wall carbon nanotube complex for polymer bulk heterojunction photovoltaic cells

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