PV Institute

TU students use grant for NASA power research

Post-Nasa-Power2TU students have received funding from NASA to create an efficient energy storage system that will benefit space exploration, rovers and satellites.

In September 2013, The University of Tulsa, along with Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma submitted a grant to the Oklahoma NASA Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). The proposal was sent to NASA at the federal level, where it was approved and received $637,500 to research and develop the proposed project. Oklahoma State Regents matched that funding with $127,500.

Since the beginning of this project, students and faculty from the three universities studied, tested and fabricated both a nanostructured photovoltaic (PV) system and nanostructured batteries.

The students created solar cells, made of zinc and oxygen nanorods, or rods that offer direct electrical transport, and “decorated” the nanorods with gold particles. These solar cells harvest light and convert it into useful energy. Upon collection, students constructed bars and circuitry through which the energy could travel to the nanobatteries. These batteries are comprised of billions of individual battery cells, and they have the ability to be scaled to the desired size. These high-functioning nanostructured PVs and batteries will increase efficiency in NASA satellites and rovers while maintaining a low cost per watt.

Graduate students Yingdi Liu (physics) and Indumini Jayasekara and Echo Adcock Smith (both chemistry) were awarded Bellwether Fellowships by The University of Tulsa during the reporting period.

TU a pioneer in solar-powered nanobatteries

For the past two years, students and faculty have spent hundreds of hours studying the capabilities of nanobatteries with the help of a grant from NASA and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR). In collaboration with faculty at Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma, TU investigators specializing in chemistry, physics, electrical engineering and mechanical engineering are setting the standard in solar-powered nanobatteries.

Peter Hawrylak, assistant professor of electrical engineering, is developing advanced circuit models of the system to determine how best to combine the nanorods and nanobatteries into a unified energy storage system. TU Associate Professor of Physics Parameswar Harikumar and OU Assistant Professor of Physics and Astronomy Ian Sellers are developing a photovoltaic nanorod for the harvesting of light energy. Advanced models of this nanorod include a fluid form that can be painted onto the surface of a small solar panel. Beneath the panel lies a battery control system of nanowires designed by TU Professor of Chemistry Dale Teeters.

Left to right: Students Bennett Krack, Trokon Johnson, Ashraful Islam and Arthur Win

TU’s current research focuses on how to build the control system, charge the nanobatteries, collect the energy and direct it to separate battery banks. Hawrylak is working with all three components to develop circuit models for optimal performance.

“We’re looking at dividing up the solar panel activity and harvesting the energy in sections for efficiency,” Hawrylak said. “If certain parts are less effective, we hope to move the charge from where it’s best collected to the rest of the nanobattery system.”

Officially known as A Nanostructured Energy Harvesting and Storage System for Space and Terrestrial Applications, the grant’s research combines the functions of a solar panel’s energy-gathering system with its energy storage. Hawrylak said the method will simplify the fabrication of large-scale batteries and introduce new uses for nanobatteries. “Using solar panels to power batteries, we could embed the system into a vehicle, or the integrated circuit design could be built into a computer chip.”

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.”