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Dr. Peter Cook pursues research on a cheaper solar cell

Posted on Jul 16, 2012
A UW-Superior scientist joins colleagues on a project aimed at producing cheaper solar cells.
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Dr. Peter Cook

Dr. Peter Cook

The world could use a cheaper solar cell, and UW-Superior's Dr. Peter Cook is among the scientists trying to figure out a way to create one.

Cook, assistant professor of physics in the Department of Natural Sciences, recently received an Applied Research Grant Award from UW System to conduct solar cell research. He'll work with other University of Wisconsin System scientists to use using X-ray spectroscopy to study organic dyes that might be useful in creating a less expensive solar cell.

"I like the solar cell bent of this project," Cook said. "If you can make a cheap solar cell, everybody wins."

Solar cells use energy from sunlight to generate electricity. Most commercially manufactured solar cells are made of silicon.

Although silicon is abundant and cheap, it must be altered to a crystalline state to be used in a solar cell. The amount of energy used in that process significantly increases the cost of making the cells. That means a business or homeowner buying solar cells to generate electricity must use them for years before paying back the initial investment.

Today, many researchers are exploring ways to create an alternative solar cell. Among them is a type called a "dye-sensitized" solar cell, which uses inexpensive organic dyes instead of silicon to create electricity.

There's just one problem. Current dye-sensitized cells can last only a few hours, so they've never left the confines of research labs. Scientists are trying to find ways to lengthen the lives of these cells to make them commercially viable.

Over the next year, Cook will work with Dr. Franz Himpsel, a physicist at UW-Madison, and other scientists in an effort to find dyes that can be altered in a way to make them suitable for use in solar cells. One class of dyes, called porphyrins, are easy to produce and occur in nature in things like chlorophyll and hemoglobin.

"The idea is, 'Let's take a cue from nature,' " Cook said. "We don't know which dye to use. I've been looking for the last several years to see how we can change their electronic structure" to create a dye that works in solar cells.

This summer, Cook and his collaborators will spend three weeks at the Synchrotron Radiation Center in Stoughton, Wis., using X-ray spectroscopy on various dyes. In simple terms, the X-rays will hit the dyes and electrons will pop off the dye atoms. Once the scientists have collected their data, they will analyze which of the altered dyes might show promise for use in solar cells.

The project is a good fit for Cook, who earned his doctorate degree in X-ray spectroscopy at UW-Madison. He also likes the idea of working on a project that has such a huge potential upside.

"I feel like Wisconsin could gain from an inexpensive solar cell," he said. "Wisconsin is energy poor. We have wind and that's it. Even though we're a northern state, we get a fair amount of sunlight.      

News Contact: Al Miller | 715-394-8260 | amiller{atuws}
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