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BYU students’ nanocrystals could create more efficient solar panels

by Natalie Crofts (KSL.com – Page Two, Science &Tech)

April 10, 2015

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PROVO — Low-cost solar energy could be the end product of research carried out by students at Brigham Young University.

Stephen Erickson and Trevor Smith are building materials designed to absorb different wavelengths of light, which common silicon solar cells miss. Together, they published a study on how nanocrystals in ferritin can increase efficiency in solar energy conversion.

“What we’re looking to do is use the protein ferritin, which is a 12 nanometer-wide hollow sphere that your body and most animals use for iron storage, but through some fancy chemistry you can take out that iron and replace it with a wide variety of different minerals that all behave differently,” Erickson said. “I’ve been looking at how these minerals within the ferritin protein absorb light for solar energy applications.”

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The biggest benefit of using the nanocrystals is that researchers could control the wavelengths of light it absorbs, letting them divide up the solar spectrum and increase efficiency in the solar cells, according to Erickson.

Another strength is that the materials are Earth-abundant and can be synthesized at room temperature. In contrast, Erickson said one of the main expenses for creating silicon solar cells is heating furnaces to produce the necessary crystals. He believes eliminating the need for heating could open up the possibility for low-cost solar energy.

The students have been working on the project for about two years with chemistry professor Richard Watt and physics professor John Colton. Recently, the team has grown to include about six more undergraduate students. Erickson, an undergraduate student, and Smith, a graduate student, are both slated to graduate from BYU in the coming months.

Erickson said the next step of the research is to build a prototype solar cell.

“There are a lot of interesting experiments still to do that future undergraduates will take over and I’m sure see great success with,” he said.

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