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Researchers study solar cell technology, energy storage

Rochester Institute of Technology researchers have expanded both solar cell technology and knowledge of environmental effects of energy storage on the electricity grid, officials said.

In solar cell technology, RIT researchers are using nanowires to capture more of the sun’s energy and transform it into usable electricity, officials said.

The RIT research team is exploring an unconventional process to improve solar power conversion efficiencies to convert sunlight into useful electrical energy. The team’s work focuses on maximizing how much of the solar spectrum can be taken in using tandem junction solar cells based on III-V compounds—metallic and non-metallic elements on the Periodic Table to supplement silicon, RIT said.

“III-V tandem devices are the best in the world, but because of the manufacturing and initial materials costs, they are very expensive to produce,” said Parsian Mohseni, assistant professor of microsystems engineering in the Kate Gleason College of Engineering, in a statement. “Therefore, they are not used in consumer markets. They are used in niche applications such as space technologies. You are not going to see today’s III-V devices on large solar panels on people’s rooftops because they are so expensive.”

The project will be conducted over a two-year period and aims to expand the scope of III-V solar cells beyond niche markets.

In addition, an RIT researcher has received a $149,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to study the environment effects of energy storage on the electric grid.

“The emissions effects that their usage would cause is mostly unstudied and a bit complicated,” said Eric Hittinger, an assistant professor of public policy at the College of Liberal Arts and a faculty member at Golisano Institute for Sustainability. “If you have big batteries on the grid, it tends to shift around which generators are used and when they are used. On the plus side, storage can be used to save up excess renewable energy rather than waste it. But storage might also mean more use of low-cost coal generation or other fossil fuels.”

The first objective of the research is to understand the climate, health and environmental effects of operating energy storage devices in the U.S. followed by proposing new electricity system policies that allow the economic benefits of storage to be captured without causing inadvertent emissions, Hittinger said.

Hittinger will work with Ines Azevedo, a professor in the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, which is receiving a matching NSF grant.

RIT students will be taking data from the Carnegie findings and applying how adoption of energy storage would likely change the electricity storage system, both in terms of emission and economics, officials said. Work is slated to begin this fall.

Follow Kerry Feltner on Twitter: @KerryFeltner

(c) 2017 Rochester Business Journal. To obtain permission to reprint this article, call 585-363-7269 or email madams@bridgetowermedia.com.

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