UT and A&M join forces in solar research

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Photo Credit: Courtesy of Korgel office

Aggies and Longhorns are putting aside their differences and teaming up to harness the power of the sun.

UT is collaborating with A&M’s main campus, the Central Texas campus and their Engineering Experiment Station to complete solar research. The recently-formed team will work on the technology behind photovoltaics, hoping to educate the public about solar energy and make this resource cheaper and more efficient.

Photovoltaics convert sunlight into electricity by creating a current between two chemical substances, often through the use of solar panels. Solar energy provides a clean and virtually limitless source of energy, although obstacles stand in the way of widespread implementation. 

UT is a member of the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Center for Next Generation Photovoltaics, which is the only NSF-funded collaboration between industry and higher education focused on solar research. Texas A&M institutes recently received a $400,000 grant from the NSF which will help form the third site of this center. 

“With the NSF funding to support the solar research, the NSF Next Generation Photovoltaics Solar Research Center will become an international portal for solar research, and turn solar energy from an evolutionary energy source to a revolutionary energy source,” said Russell Porter, Texas A&M’s Vice President of Research and Economic Development and co-director of the Texas A&M site.

Brian Korgel, UT chemical engineering professor and director of the center, said Texas A&M will bring in important research facilities and industry partners to help advance UT’s current efforts. 

“The capabilities they have at Texas A&M are very complementary to what we have at UT,” Korgel said. “The center really benefits from having different kinds of faculty at both institutions working together.” 

Industry partners, including Boeing and the U.S. Air Force, work with researchers on application-based problems and make advances possible. Industry/university cooperatives will produce cost-effective and more efficient ways of harnessing solar energy, as well as educate people about its utility, Robert Balog, co-director of the A&M site, said in a press release. 

Korgel said the center also faces non-technical challenges, such as misinformation on solar power’s feasibility. 

“One issue is educating the public about solar cells and the cost of photovoltaic electricity,” Korgel said. “The general perception is that photovoltaic electricity is expensive, but it turns out that the new solar farms are generating the lowest-cost energy that there is. Utility-scale solar is really, really cheap.”

The Center for Next Generation Photovoltaics also tackles some of the issues surrounding storing solar power. Sunlight is intermittent, so it’s important for scientists to develop ways to manage energy storage.

Until recently, the importance of oil to Texas’ economy has discouraged solar power development in Texas, Korgel said, but the state has a bright future in the area.

“Out of all of the states in the United States, Texas has one of the best solar resources,” Korgel said. “One of the things I’m most excited about is getting Texas into the research arena in a leadership role.”