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Employing semiconductors to better store, use solar energy

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Posted March 1, 2013

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $400,000 Early Career Development grant to Fuqiang Liu, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering, to improve the way solar energy is captured, stored and transmitted for use. Liu’s process uses semiconductors in an artificial photosynthesis process to capture solar energy. Current methods use hydrogen and oxygen to harness power from the sun.

Liu said his team places advanced semiconductors in contact with vanadium or cerium ions. Vanadium and cerium are two elements. Then, under sunlight, the electrons and holes created by the semiconductors react photoelectrochemically with the vanadium or cerium ions.

As a result, Liu said the vanadium or cerium ions either gain or lose electrons similar to the way a rechargeable battery works. The process stores the solar energy. Liu’s team then uses a discharge process to generate electricity.

“Compared to the current approach, we can potentially increase the yield of solar energy by 10 times and improve efficiency at least four times,” Liu said.

Jean-Pierre Bardet, dean of the College of Engineering, said Liu’s work holds great promise for the field of sustainable energy.

“When we determine better ways to use energy that is readily available, we are helping everyone,” Bardet said. “We appreciate the NSF’s support for Dr. Liu’s work.”

Liu noted that the world’s energy consumption doubles every 14 years.

“At our current rate, there are only about 100 years of fossil fuels left,” Liu said. “Solar energy is a great source because it is plentiful. The challenges with solar energy always have been storage and transmission. My research helps meet some of those challenges.”

Source: University of Texas at Arlington

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