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Nanomaterials the key to better solar energy, according to Emory's Lian

As the electronics industry strives to create ever-smaller devices, scientists seek to harness solar energy to power handheld computers, calculators and other miniature machines. Emory researcher Tianquan Lian and his team are working to generate electricity from particles too small to see with the naked eye in a quest to eventually perfect a far smaller--and less expensive--solar cell. Such solar cells would replace the silicon crystal-based ones now at the heart of the semiconductor industry.

Lian's nanomaterials research involves studying titanium dioxide particles a million times smaller than a strand of hair and their use in creating electricity from solar energy. The goal is to find a cheaper way to create energy, according to Lian, assistant professor in physical chemistry at Emory. He is the recipient of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, a competitive research award given to outstanding scientists at an early stage of their careers.
Solar energy is usually converted to electricity on the surface of high-quality silicone crystals, which often are several feet in diameter. Plus, silicone is expensive to make. In contrast, Lian uses titanium dioxide particles similar to those in common products like sunscreen and paint pigment. Using particles thousands of times smaller than those found in such products--particles measured in nanometers--Lian suspends them in liquid to create a white, smooth paste to spread over conducting glass for viewing under an electron microscope.

Use of nanomaterials provides exponentially more surface area than larger silicone crystals because, when suspended in paste, more particle surfaces are available for electron transfer. With the collaboration of Debbie Mohler, assistant professor of organic chemistry, Lian creates a molecule on the surface of each particle and, with injection of light, energizes an electron along the particle's surface to produce electricity.

Titanium oxide is cheaper to make and produces none of the environmentally damaging waste of silicone production, but nanomaterials are not yet as efficient as silicone, according to Lian. "Once we're able to produce the same or more electricity with less cost, then we will have improved the solar cell," says Lian.

Read a recent publication in the Oct. 26, 2001 issue of Chemical Physics Letters.

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