Published on Thursday May 29, 2014
Professor Jonathan Spanier has won a 2014 College of Engineering Excellence in Research Award for his discovery of new sustainable energy generation materials for light harvesting technologies.
Spanier's Mesoscale Materials Laboratory reported in Nature 503 509-512 (2014) the design, synthesis and performance of a new class of earth-abundant visible light-absorbing semiconducting materials with tunable electronic band gaps that fundamentally operate in different ways than existing solar cells. They exploit the bulk photovoltaic effect, whereas current systems are based on seminconductor pn-junctions. They also exhibit ferroelectric properties - elusive electronic functionality absent in most low-band gap semiconductors - which enables them to channel the flow of electrical charge (current) in a single direction without the need for complex processing and manufacturing. These features should lead to improve photovoltaic efficiencies by limiting excitonic recombination. More remarkably is that the novel ceramics have additional environmental and sustainability advantages over their traditional thin-film solar panel counterparts, which tend to contain materials that are rare, toxic, or both, because they are made from earth-abundant and benign elements. His work has spawned a rapidly growing field of "perovskite" solar materials, which has extraordinary potential, and might elevate the solar cell industry to new heights within the next few years.