Project Details


Photovoltaics leverages one of the 20th centurys greatest scientific advancesquantum mechanicsto realize electricity generation that uses fundamentally different physical principles than other generation sources, allowing locally generated, high efficiency, scalable, and environmentally benign energy systems. Solar energy has the unique capacity to meet and exceed the entire world energy demand. Over the last three decades, photovoltaics (PV) has developed from a niche market into a significant source, within Germany and other localized grids up to 50% of the instantaneous power use from PV. Despite these achievements, as one of the newest forms of electricity generation, PV has enormous potential for further growth and improvements. By developing new approaches that lead to unprecedented performance and cost for commercial solar cells, QESST aims to revolutionize existing photovoltaic devices and systems and promote continued growth and impact from photovoltaics. QESST seeks to accelerate implementation of PV technologies through the collaborative development of advances in PV device design that allow rapid implementation and growth. This requires advances in photovoltaic concepts, technology and education as well as application and integration of sustainability concepts and active engagement from industrial collaborators. The goal of QESST is to develop technologies and approaches that provide a path of continuous, cumulative improvements, providing both short term relevance as well as a path to exceeding presently accepted commercial efficiency and cost targets. The central novelty is that a multidisciplinary effort enables new cross cutting approaches, exploiting insight and experience from one technology platform to another to ensure lessons learned from more mature PV device engineering are transferred to novel approaches. QESST technologies span the range of existing commercial technologies silicon, thin films and tandem devices and apply advances spanning manufacturing, new device approaches to fundamental novelties to realize improved performance, lower cost devices. Intellectual Merit: QESST drives the development of an interdisciplinary collaborative research agenda spanning fundamental sciences, device design and systems engineering. QESST is leading the development of scalable, commercially relevant PV systems which overcome fundamental barriers in existing photovoltaic devices, allowing simultaneous increases in efficiency and reductions in cost. These devices are being demonstrated in research testbeds designed to move technology towards commercialization, in collaboration with industrial partners seeking to accelerate the translation of research into commercial endeavors. In Years 6-10, QESST will continue to advance the science of photovoltaics and the transition of this knowledge to industry. We will also broaden our perspective to focus on multifunctional devices that not only generate electricity but perform other important functions such as cleaning the atmosphere. Broader Impacts: QESST is educating students from early scholars to post-graduate leaders, the broader community interested in how we will solve our future energy challenge, and the globally diverse PV industry. QESST seeks to use the motivational advantage of a central challenge - meeting the future demand for energy in a clean and sustainable approach - to build a diverse pipeline of educated students that drive the future PV industry. QESST is focusing on improving the efficacy of energy engineering curriculum through researching effective pedagogy, and building a strong collaboration between academia and industry so students understand how they can contribute to the global photovoltaics industry.


Project Overview: Why Photovoltaic (PV) Engineering Needs Veteran Undergraduate Students, and Undergraduate Veterans Need PV Research As the demand for electricity continues to expand, supplying it creates significant challenges. The U.S. is the largest consumer of energy in the world and relies on foreign sources for one-third of its power. One of the most promising routes to providing new energy and fostering new ways of thinking about power is through photovoltaics (PV), the technology that harnesses solar energy. Currently, the U.S. lags behind several countries in PV research and development, such as Germany, China, and Australia. These countries have devoted more resources to funding basic research and have government subsidized programs for the practical implementation of solar energy, creating an economic climate conducive to producing viable public and private utilities. Nevertheless, the U.S. is poised to move into a leadership position in PV. Whereas other countries have made progress through devoting large sums to R& D, or through sheer numbers (e.g., China), the U.S. is making strides by investing in the next generation of PV technology innovations that will increase the efficiency of solar cells, dramatically reducing the costs associated with PV adoption. All countries have fallen behind in the education of the next generation of PV engineers. There are only a handful of graduate-level programs in the world, and a single undergraduate major in PV (at the University of New South Wales, Australia). At best, engineering programs offer three or four classes that contain PV content. This handicaps us not only in the obvious waystudents do not graduate with the content knowledge and skills to be innovators in PVbut also in that students are not given the opportunity to explore what it would mean to be a PV engineer, or develop an identity around a future as a PV engineer. If we can continue making innovative contributions to PV while growing a strong, vibrant network of PV education programs, the U.S. will leap to the forefront of this world-changing technology. We could simply work toward offering more coursework and laboratory time for students, but we believe this will not be sufficient. To truly change engineering education in ways that push PV forward, we need to expose undergraduates to the promise of PV early in their engineering careers in ways that integrate challenging content with experiences that foster a personal identity as a PV engineer with a commitment to social transformation. Veterans have unique sets of skills which will allow them to fully participate in both the PV educational experiences we have designed, but also in the PV industry of the future. The semester long REU program will allow up to three veteran undergraduate students to participate in research focused on photovoltaic solar energy by becoming participants in the NSF ERC for Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technology (QESST; EEC-1041895). The objectives of the REU program are to: (1) engage undergraduate students in research on photovoltaic solar energy; (2) encourage students who are new to engineering, either as students from other disciplines related to solar energy (physics or mathematics), or as students in their first year of university study, to continue their study in engineering; (3) encourage advanced students to continue on to graduate school; and (4) contribute to the development of well-trained women and underrepresented minorities. The undergraduate students experience will be enriched by seminars and workshops that enable them to obtain a broad perspective of the fields of solar energy and sustainability. The program also will develop a number of social activities to encourage communication between the newly placed undergraduates in the lab and the established undergraduates. At the center of the QESST REU program is the student-led pilot line. The goal of the pilot line is to use laboratory scale devices as a means to understand and solve the issues involved in implementing large-scale production. The test-bed allows students and industry to fabricate modules that incorporate the innovation; test and characterize the modules (including accelerated reliability tests), deploy the modules in the field, and analyze the data. The pilot line will lead to the determination of efficiencies and costs, and hence demonstrate the feasibility of new technologies while providing significant educational and industrial experiences for the students. Students will operate the pilot production line for research and design projects as an accompaniment to coursework, through collaboration with companies, or while doing an internship for the company. Importantly, the pilot line supports students at many levels graduate students, undergraduates (who will have key responsibility in its running), and high-school students through summer research programs. While the students will directly participate in the intellectual and practical management of the facility, they are supported and mentored both in detailed processing and process design. The test bed is student-led to emphasize the student involvement in this critical phase of technology transfer and entrepreneurship. Furthermore, students working on the QESST pilot-line will be provided with opportunities to integrate with community service programs (e.g., EPICS; Engineers Without Borders), designing and producing cells to support these community projects. The QESST engineering research center will donate the resources (e.g., products of the pilot line) to community service programs chosen by the students. The aim of the pilot line is to provide access and a means of interaction for industry, researchers, and other students to analyze new concepts in a realistic environment, producing cells and modules that are assessed for efficiency, reliability, and yield in the same way as they would be in professional research and development programs and manufacturing settings. The pilot line test bed is critical to QESSTs goal of improved solar module performance at lower costs. Running a collaborative pilot line enables the rapid testing of novel materials, leading to the development of cheaper and higher-performance modules and module/system components. The synergistic collaboration of commercial module component manufacturers with the university will rapidly incorporate novel materials developed in the ERC into best-in-class solar modules. Specially designed environmental chambers enable measurements of performance over long times in harsh environments, simulating an accelerated aging process. Such tests will provide excellent feedback to ERC participants, enabling them to solve critical systems-level problems upfront. The silicon pilot line is housed in 4,000 ft laboratory and consists of the full range of equipment for commercial silicon solar cells, including diffusions, metallization, characterization, and several options for surface passivation, such as nitride and a-Si. Once fabricated, the cells are encapsulated into modules for deployment at the site of the students choice. The pilot line is flexible enough to allow for customized modules to be developed to suit the end user application. The students will train the end users on the correct use of the modules and, in many cases, take the modules back to their home institutions for deployment. Recruitment efforts will be targeted to partner institutions and community colleges with ties to the partner schools that have little or no research activity and an emphasis on minority students and women. We believe that the content of the REU program, semiconductor research in general, and PV engineering in particular, is uniquely suited to such recruitment while also being attractive to students that are already well represented. Of particular importance is the fact that sustainability is acentral concept within PV engineering. Many students, both those who come from underrepresented minorities and traditional students who value helping the world and its peoples, find sustainability issues to be an interesting and important way to approach PV engineering. Because PV plays a central role in providing a sustainable energy source, it is at the forefront of conversations and movements toward sustainability. The concept of sustainability presents a challenge to scientists and citizens to reconcile societal and economic aspirations with the environmental capacities of our planet. Sustainable solutions are those that provide the best outcomes for people and natural environments both now and into the future. Recognition that these realms must coexist means that sustainability science is becoming an increasingly important area of research and education as a reflection of trends in society, business, and government. Moreover, sustainability problems fit comfortably into existing subject matter as in engineering, chemistry, physics, public policy, and economics. Sustainability issues are real-world problems that are complex, not yielding to easy solutions, and best understood in a local context. As a result, important concepts in sustainability science are more readily communicated to students facing specific challenges rather than abstract concepts in isolation. Solutions to sustainability challenges require an awareness of the complexity of the problem and cascading implications of alternate actions, a sense of stewardship of limited natural resources, creativity to discover technological solutions; insight to promote institutions that continually adapt to changing circumstances and a sense of justice to ensure that actions taken benefit the widest possible range of citizens.


Project Summary: The Engineering Research Center: Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies (QESST) responded to a National Science Foundation (NSF) Call for Exhibitor and Presenter Nominations for the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Career Fair, Friday-Saturday, September 27-28, 2013, and was accepted as an exhibitor. The STEM Career Fair, which is being held in conjunction with the office of U.S. House Representative Frank Wolf, will showcase exciting science and innovation with the goal of encouraging young people, especially those in grades 7-12, to pursue careers in science and engineering. The goal of the Career Fair is to inspire our nations youth to consider STEM-related careers, as well as to increase our nations awareness of exciting science, innovation, and education enabled by federal investments. The Career Fair provides an opportunity for the NSF to showcase the amazing discoveries it supports throughout the United States, and to highlight the vast diversity of science and engineering career possibilities. The Fair will be held at the Dulles Town Center Mall, and will include indoor and outdoor exhibits and stage areas. Participants visiting the QESST booth will explore solar energy and the engineering design process as they participate in a solar car design challenge. Using Lego Solar Car components, participants will have the opportunity to design, build, test, and refine a Lego Solar Car. Participants also will have the opportunity to view solar cars built by QESST scholars using recycled and repurposed materials.
Effective start/end date8/15/117/31/21


  • National Science Foundation (NSF): $35,258,973.00


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