Photovoltaic research supports extended space exploration

In a new research project sponsored by NASA EPSCoR (Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research), a group of faculty from the College of Engineering and Natural Sciences will study how to develop a biologically based life support system for space travel.

“The idea is to use algae as a source of nutrients and find a way to harness harmful or wasted wavelengths in space that are not normally used,” said Daniel Crunkleton, director of TU’s Institute of Alternative Energy. “We want to optimize the production of algae by using the maximum possible number of wavelengths in the spectrum with nanoparticles.”

Research team
Back row (left to right): Tyler Johannes, Kenneth Roberts
Front row: Daniel Crunkleton, Parameswar Hari and Todd Otanicar

Through the deployment of light’s extra wavelengths in space, the TU team plans to perform photonic conversions that allow for chlorophyll absorption. Photovoltaic (PV) wavelengths will be converted into energy capable of executing algae photosynthesis, but the researchers are quick to emphasize the reaction would not produce a stand-alone food source.

“It’s more nutrients than food, but there are other benefits to algae,” said Tyler Johannes, associate professor of chemical engineering. “It produces oxygen and filters out carbon dioxide and is also rich in fatty acids and vitamins.”

The three-year, $750,000 grant is a collaboration between TU’s Institutes of Alternative Energy and Nanotechnology. Other researchers include Associate Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Ken Roberts, two graduate students, two undergrads, Professor of Chemistry Allen Apblett from Oklahoma State University and Assistant Professor Ian Sellers from the University of Oklahoma Department of Physics and Astronomy.

As a result of the PV and algae research, the Oklahoma PV Research Institute at TU was established in November to design and fabricate cost-effective PV cells, foster interdisciplinary research and encourage collaboration between the three universities. Parameswar Hari, director of the Oklahoma PV Research Institute, said TU’s role involves identifying nanomaterials for PV studies and researching third-generation PV cells, which are polymer, photo electrochemical solar cells and organic dye-sensitized cells that are not made of silicon or fabricated as thin films.

“The researchers assembled under the institute are experts in developing the next generation of solar cells,” he said. “The lessons we learn from this project will help us obtain funding from the Department of Energy, the Department of Defense and the National Science Foundation.”