UA Receives $8.7M to Fund New Research Centers

by Arkansas Business Staff  on Monday, Oct. 4, 2010 1:35 pm  

Three teams of researchers at the University of Arkansas will receive $8.7 million over five years to establish two new research centers on campus.

The funds will be used to establish two new centers - the Green Renewable Energy Efficient Nanoplasmonic Solar Cells Center, known as GREEN, and the Vertically Integrated Center for Transformative Energy Research, known as VICTER. The agreement also will continue the funding for a third center - the Plant Powered Production Center, or P3.

The grant represents a cooperative agreement between the National Science Foundation and the Arkansas Science & Technology Authority. The funds are part of $24 million for the state, which includes $20 million from NSF and $4 million from ASTA. They will be used statewide for research into advances in cost-efficient solar power and the electric power grid, as well as for innovative approaches to research in plants.

"We are thrilled to be part of this multi-institution initiative," said G. David Gearhart, chancellor of the University of Arkansas. "This agreement and the research that will ensue have the potential to put Arkansas on the map in solar energy and power electronics, as well as in the field of plant molecular biology."

Two of the three centers will focus on different aspects of solar cell technology - an efficient form of renewable energy that has the potential to solve some of the world's energy problems, if certain barriers can be overcome.

"There are two challenges facing solar energy today - storage and cost," said Vasu Varadan, Distinguished Professor of electrical engineering and George M. and Boyce W. Billingsley Chair in Engineering and principal investigator for GREEN. "But the bottom line is what you are going to pay on your electric bill. That's what counts."

Most of the cost of solar cells comes from the silicon used to absorb the sunlight. Although the silicon coating is only 100 microns thick, it still accounts for about 60 percent of the cost of a solar cell, Varadan said. Her research group is working on reducing the silicon coating to 200 to 400 nanometers, or one-sixth to one-eighth of the thickness of current solar cells.

"The challenge in making the silicon coating thin is that there is not enough thickness for the light to be absorbed," Varadan said. Her laboratory specializes in materials with optical properties that can work on the front end of a device to make the ultrathin silicon absorb sunlight more effectively.

"We believe that we can create economical, efficient solar cells in this way," Varadan said.

The other center, VICTER, will have a slightly broader focus, said Alan Mantooth, professor of electrical engineering, executive director of the National Center for Reliable Electric Power Transmission and holder of the Twenty-First Century Endowed Chair in Mixed-signal Integrated Circuit Design and Computer-Aided Design.

"We're interested in taking these new photovoltaic materials and determining how to make a new device out of them and package them," Mantooth said. "We want to take the materials they make to the electrical grid." The center will pursue the creation of more energy-efficient solar cells, but also will address the challenges of packaging solar cells and creating solar panels to make them efficient, rugged and cost-effective. Further, VICTER researchers will focus on next generation solar inverter technology, the electronics device that converts the DC power from the panels to AC power for the grid.

"We'll go all the way from the sun to the grid," he said. They will use test bed solar systems already in place at the Enterprise Center in the Arkansas Research and Technology Park and also at the Fayetteville Public Library to test novel solar cells and solar inverters made with novel materials.

"A lot of innovations come down to new materials," Mantooth said. "This has broad implications beyond electronics at the University of Arkansas."

These projects also include funding to attract students to the field. The GREEN Center will create state-of-the-art undergraduate laboratories at three universities in Arkansas. There will be an optics laboratory at Philander Smith College, a solar cell characterization laboratory at University of Arkansas, Pine Bluff and a solar power station building laboratory at the University of Arkansas, Fort Smith. The center also will feature a "GREEN mobile," which will consist of a trailer filled with solar energy demonstrations and experiments. Researchers will take the "GREEN mobile" on the road to classrooms across Arkansas to help inform students about solar energy in an entertaining way, with the hopes of interesting students in pursuing careers in the field.

"Students are essential to what we are doing, because they will be the ones who take the technology and convert it into a business," Mantooth said.

The third project, known as Plant Powered Production, or P3, is a continuation of a three-year grant received in 2007 from NSF and ASTA. Spearheaded by Arkansas State University and led on the University of Arkansas campus by plant pathology professor Ken Korth, this project has brought researchers with different expertise from different campuses together to collaborate on plant-related research.

"Ultimately, we want to understand the ways in which plants can be used to improve human and environmental health," Korth said. "New frontiers of plant research of antioxidants, antimicrobial agents and targeted gene insertion can be explored in rich detail."

This NSF Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research agreement is the second of its kind funded under the Arkansas ASSET Initiative (Advancing and Supporting Science, Engineering and Technology), which is designed to boost progress in scientific research areas developing in Arkansas. The first funding in the ASSET Initiative was awarded in August of 2007.

The initiative will also entail the followign schools in Arkansas: the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, the University of Central Arkansas and Arkansas State University.



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