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College of Science and Mathematics

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Chemistry Student Helps Create New Solar Material

March 13, 2014

Student holding small, square piece of plastic
Grant Olson holds up a piece of the hybrid material he's helped create.

Grant Olson may be shaping the future of solar cells. The chemistry graduate student is part of a group working with Professor Shanju Zhang to create a brand new material, a semiconducting polymer that could be laid onto a surface the way ink is, but with a bonus — it converts sunlight into electricity. Their research is funded by the National Science Foundation.

"This is real Learn by Doing," Zhang said. "A lot of students start knowing nothing about polymers, semiconducting polymers or solar cells. Through doing the research and discussion with others, they learn the field and can publish a paper in the field."

Current solar cells are rigid and made of inorganic materials. Organic, or polymer-based, cells — composed of long chains of carbon molecules — offer many benefits, among them flexibility and economy. A polymer-based cell could be painted on the side of a building, for example, and it could be made for a fraction of the cost of current cells.

Polymer-based cells exist, but they don't yet generate much power. Zhang's group has successfully linked a semiconducting polymer to zinc oxide nanowires. This hybrid material increases the electron transfer and the efficiency of power production, key factors for improving the performance of polymer solar cells. That's a promising sign for future design performance, according to Zhang.

Industry judges at the Western Coatings Symposium in Las Vegas must have thought so, too. Olson won second place for his poster presentation at the conference last fall, an invaluable experience as he enters the job market this spring.

"There were several job offers that I got because those industry contacts had seen me in person and knew the level of research I was doing," Olson said. He will also represent Cal Poly at the CSU Student Research Competition.

The next step in the research process is to use existing printing technology to lay the new material down on various surfaces to create actual cells. This process would allow the polymer-based solar cells to be produced inexpensively on a large scale because the printing infrastructure already exists.

Olson's next step is into the coatings industry, and he's confident he's prepared. "If you come from a purely theoretical background, it means as soon as something goes wrong you're incapable of solving it. At Cal Poly, I got the full experience of knowing the theory, executing it and then solving the problems that arose," he said.

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