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NDSU professor leads research into new types of solar panels

Photo of Philip Boudjouk

Philip Boudjouk

Philip Boudjouk, professor of chemistry and biochemistry, has received a $2.5 million research award from the U.S Department of Defense to develop new materials that can absorb solar energy in low-light conditions.

Photovoltaic cells, developed at Bell Labs in 1954, traditionally involve a sandwich of positive and negative layers of silicon. When solar energy hits the layers, it causes electrons to pass between them, generating electricity.

The main drawback of PV cells has been the requirement of strong, unfiltered sunlight to operate at peak efficiency. The U.S. Navy is interested in solar energy, but naval operations don’t always occur during the day or in perfect conditions.

Boudjouk asks, “Could we capture energy from moonlight? Perhaps. We’d have to call it ‘lunar energy’ instead of solar energy.”

Boudjouk, a Jordan A. Engberg distinguished professor and Chamber of Commerce distinguished professor, has researched the synthesis of compounds containing silicon for nearly five decades. His work has developed materials that are semiconducting, can be used as inks for printed electronics applications and for novel photovoltaic devices. He has created unique materials such as the liquid precursor cyclohexasilane, which is being used in the creation of nontoxic silicon quantum dots that are tiny nanometer semiconductors that emit light when their electrons are exposed to UV light and hold great promise in medicine.

He is again paving new ground with his latest research. He hopes to create solar PV cells that will generate electricity from low levels of light, such as cloudy days or under water. “This is a high level of discovery,” Boudjouk said. “It’s always risky when you’re creating new materials, but there are great rewards if you’re successful.”

Boudjouk’s work for the military may impact private industry. He looks to meet the needs of the military and also have a reasonable opportunity for commercialization afterward.

“I keep an eye on what industry is doing to know their needs,” Boudjouk said. “Few companies, especially small ones, can afford to do this type of basic research, but they are very interested in it because they are trying to solve exactly the same problems.”

Boudjouk has mapped out a two-year plan for the research that will require setting up specialized equipment for the research and training researchers how to use it. The equipment will help in the creation of what he calls complex mixtures, or extremely precise and pure combinations of elements. The research will use robotic processes to conduct dozens of experimental mixtures at once that will then be measured for purity down to the level of specific atoms.

Boudjouk has begun building a staff of post-docs and undergraduate students who will work with him in his lab, which will be housed in the NDSU R2 building. The facility has both Class 100 and Class 10,000 bays encompassing a total area under filtration of 12,000 square feet.

“R2 is such a great facility and it’s perfect for this kind of work, given the electronics capabilities of the cleanrooms and the efficient design of the chemistry labs,” he said.

Funding for the project was secured through U.S. Sen. John Hoeven of North Dakota.

“This award builds on Dr. Boudjouk’s extensive work at NDSU and will provide important benefits to strengthen the capabilities of our military assets and enhance our nation’s ability to defend ourselves and our allies,” said Hoeven. “By developing more efficient solar cells, UAS and other assets will be able to operate for longer and in more environments. Further, this research has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of producing these materials, helping taxpayer dollars go further.”

The U.S. Navy is providing expertise and equipment to the project from the Naval Research Lab in Washington, D.C. “We have access to equipment we don’t have at NDSU as well as to doctoral-level NRL engineers, physicists and chemists who are already conducting key experiments in collaboration with us,” Boudjouk said.

"Research such as this important project led by professor Boudjouk provides significant growth to the federal portion of our research expenditures," said Colleen Fitzgerald, NDSU vice president of research. "And it robustly shows how scientific advances in energy, a key priority in the state of North Dakota, strengthens economic prosperity in the state and supports national security."

Boudjouk hopes to have some key results by summer 2022. “I’m confident in the science – the experiments aren’t that difficult,” he said. “But we’ll have to wait to see if nature agrees with us.”

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Last Updated: Tuesday, May 17, 2022 3:39:44 PM
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