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New Chemical Compound Could Impact Renewable Energy Sector

Researchers at West Virginia University have created a new chemical compound with promising potential applications in the renewable energy sector. The chemical could improve the energy efficiency of solar panels and mobile phones, among other technologies. 

Developed by assistant professor of chemistry Carsten Milsmann, along with a research team of five graduate students, the new chemical compound is a photosensitizer, meaning it can absorb light and convert it to energy. The team’s findings were published in the March issue of Nature Chemistry. 

Milsmann’s discovery could help solar panels and other technologies function more efficiently using sustainable and cost-effective materials. 

Most solar panels in production today require a certain amount of light in order to operate properly, but research is underway to create panels that can function in lower light conditions. Most of this research involves creating dye-sensitized devices that can store light and produce energy even when it’s not bright outside. The problem, though, is that the dyes used in these devices are made from precious metals, which are in limited and finite supply, rendering the dyes non-renewable and expensive to produce. 

“The problem with most solar panels is that they don’t work well on cloudy days,” explains Milsmann. “They need intense light conditions to function efficiently. One way around that is to make dye-sensitized versions where a colored compound absorbs light to produce electricity in any weather condition.”

Milsmann’s research sought to resolve the problem of expensive and non-renewable dyes by examining the application of more accessible metals such as titanium and zirconium. 

“Chemists typically make photoactive molecules based on late transition metals, which are pricey and rare,” Milsmann said, later adding, “When tackling solar energy conversion on a global scale, you don’t want to do it with something that you don’t have very much of and that is expensive.” 

Milsmann shares how he came to produce a compound using accessible metals rather than precious, or “late transition,” metals. “We noticed that there have been few efforts in studying the more abundant metals titanium and zirconium because they are often not as easy to work with. Precious metals have always been the go-to elements because of their favorable chemical properties that make them easier to use and study and that’s predominantly how it has been done in the field. We’re hoping to change that,” he proclaims.

In 2018, Milsmann received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious CAREER award to support his research in photosensitizers. The award is given to “promising and talented early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models” and includes a $650,000 grant that’s distributed over a five-year period. 

The new compound introduces a range of possibilities for the renewable energy sector beyond use in solar panels. Rather than simply converting light into energy, the compound is also capable of the reverse process of turning electrical energy into light. This means the compound could potentially be a light source for mobile phones, making them more energy-efficient. 

Milsmann envisions a bright future for his chemical compound and for renewable energy as a whole: “In the future, we could design buildings that produce energy, essentially making the façade of your building, including all of its windows, into a power plant.”

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