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NSF Career Award to advance solar energy efforts

June 11, 2008

Finding better materials to harvest energy from sunlight by using photovoltaic technology is the goal of research to be funded through a National Science Foundation (NSF) Career Award recently received by Jian Li, an assistant professor in ASU’s School of Materials.

The award recognizes scientists and engineers the NSF considers to have potential to become leaders in their fields.

Li’s award will provide $590,000 over five years to support research on organic photovoltaic materials.

It also will fund education programs based on his research.

Li is working in the Advanced Photovoltaics Center led by Ghassan Jabbour, a professor in the School of Materials, which is jointly administered by ASU’s Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering and the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

He is trying to find more economically and technologically viable materials that can be used in low-cost fabrication of solar cells (devices that generate energy using the sun’s rays).

Li says progress in this area is slow because of a limited choice of materials that can use sunlight efficiently. He is attempting to overcome such limitations by developing new kinds of organic materials that absorb sunlight more efficiently and optimize the power of the electrical current from these materials.

Electrical currents are needed to operate the systems (for example, appliances) connected to the solar cells. Li’s approach focuses on using heavy metal ions incorporated into the materials.

Understanding how to engineer the properties of organic materials will improve the performance of organic solar cells and move forward commercialization of organic photovoltaic technology, he says.

The award also will help support Li’s educational outreach efforts, including his participation in the “Science is Fun” program administered by ASU’s LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science.

Each year, the program trains 30 undergraduate and graduate student interns to give 450 hourlong science and engineering presentations at 60 Arizona schools to as many as 20,000 kindergarten-through-eighth-grade students and teachers.

With help from the Science is Fun program, Li’s project – called “Solar Electricity” – will provide science demonstrations for K-12 students, focusing on topics such as light, electricity generation and energy storage.

It also will provide classroom materials for teachers.