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  • Nate Lewis, left; Harry Atwater, right
11/11/2009 08:00:00

Caltech and Dow Chemical Team Up in Solar Materials Effort

Collaboration includes the creation of Dow Graduate Fellowship in Chemical Sciences and Engineering

PASADENA, Calif.—The California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and the Dow Chemical Company today announced a new solar-research collaboration aimed at developing the use of semiconductor materials that are less expensive and more abundant than those used in many of today's solar cells.

In addition, they announced the creation of the Dow Chemical Company Graduate Fellowship in Chemical Sciences and Engineering.

The fellowship will be granted to a second- or third-year doctoral student who shows excellence in research, leadership, and interpersonal effectiveness, and whose research program aligns with broad areas of interest to Dow, such as alternative energy sources, the development of novel specialty chemicals, and the investigation of new polymer systems. Dow's $500,000 gift will be matched by $250,000 in funds from the Gordon and Betty Moore Matching Program.

Each recipient will be selected by the chair of the Division of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering, and will hold the fellowship for up to two years.

"We are pleased that Dow and Caltech are building this relationship to support innovative research as a basis for new technologies," says Jacqueline K. Barton, the division's current chair.

The solar-research collaboration will be a four-year, $4.2 million effort to explore earth-abundant materials for solar-energy applications. The project is led by applied physicist Harry Atwater, Caltech's Howard Hughes Professor, and chemist Nate Lewis, Caltech's George L. Argyros Professor.

"In combining the R&D strengths of Dow and Caltech, we have created a powerful alliance for innovation in the field of photovoltaics," says Bill Banholzer, executive vice president and chief technology officer of Dow. "This alliance will allow the best scientists the opportunity to work together to achieve the kinds of breakthrough technologies that will be game-changing in solar-energy capture."

The new Dow/Caltech solar-research initiative is one of the company's largest externally funded research agreements, Banholzer notes.

As part of the agreement, Atwater, Lewis, and their team will develop new mineral-like electronic materials suitable for use in thin-film solar-energy-conversion devices. 

"Development of materials that are abundant in the earth's crust will enable solar-energy technologies to ultimately scale to large volumes at low cost without concern about the materials' availability," says Atwater.

Most solar cells today are made with silicon, which is itself an abundant material. Still, silicon solar technology has a relatively higher cost than that of current thin-film solar materials like cadmium telluride and copper indium diselenide. But these inexpensive semiconductors pose a problem of their own: they contain materials too scarce to ultimately meet the demands of full-scale solar-energy technologies.

That's why Atwater and Lewis are turning their attention to semiconductors found in the earth's crust.

"Use of earth-abundant materials can provide new technology options and could open new areas of design space," Lewis notes. "But it also brings new challenges. This project will develop the science and technology base for thin-film solar-energy conversion using these widely available materials."

"This is an example of industry stepping up to the plate with a long-term vision that acknowledges the importance of supporting research in its most fundamental forms," says Ares Rosakis, chair of the Division of Engineering and Applied Science at Caltech and Theodore von Kármán Professor of Aeronautics and Mechanical Engineering.

"Dow understands that high-quality research is occurring in both industrial and academic laboratories. We believe that partnerships like this one are crucial to our success in the development of efficient, affordable energy solutions," says Banholzer.

Written by Lori Oliwenstein