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VOL. 38 | NO. 25 | Friday, June 20, 2014

Solar research fuels future applications

By Hollie Deese

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Hopkins

No matter what is happening with today’s ups and downs in solar production and distribution, research is moving right along at Tennessee’s universities.

Researchers are addressing current needs like implantation and energy storage, but also focusing on obstacles in the future.

John Hopkins, Ph.D., director of strategic operations at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville is also the director of TN-SCORE, the Tennessee Solar Conversion and Storage using Outreach, Research and Education.

The program provides an opportunity to develop better research capacity and more competitiveness within all of Tennessee’s schools.

Through TN-SCORE, more than 60 faculty and 160 students work on collaborative projects in renewable energy, including research to improve efficiency of existing solar cells through new chemistry and processing techniques.

“There are student programs that are very specific to solar, some that are specific to the complementary areas of energy storage, and then some that are more fundamental materials oriented,” Hopkins adds.

Beyond research, TN-SCORE aims to connect students with a path to their chosen field.

“One of the things we have tried to do with the TN-SCORE program is create pipelines for getting students into a mode of understanding what their opportunities are for career development, and then lining up those opportunities, even if it is at another school, so they can pursue them,” Hopkins says.

“Almost like a feeder system, providing undergraduate research experience, but also making sure they are aware of the related opportunities within the industry.”

Hopkins says that while some of the solar energy research programs, especially at UTK, Vanderbilt, and Oak Ridge National Laboratory have been ongoing for some time, TN-SCORE has helped increase activity at UTK and Vanderbilt and link them to faculty and student researchers at other schools across the state.

“It has helped create a sense of collective critical mass in solar research to the point where UTK has proposed to join a National Science Foundation Industry University Cooperative Research Center in Next Generation Photovoltaics that was created by Colorado State and the University of Texas,” Hopkins explains.

“This will provide a link to companies from across the US and help support the research beyond the TN-SCORE program once it ends next year.”

Longer term, the West Tennessee Solar Farm east of Memphis serves as a development and demonstration platform for innovation emerging from UT’s research programs.

At Vanderbilt, Professors Kane Jennings and David Cliffel, along with their students, have received recognition for their work in bio-hybrid solar conversion devices.

“There are more activities ongoing within the school of engineering, and we are building more towards that,” says Dr. Ralph Bruce, professor of the practice in electrical engineering at Vanderbilt. “There are some solar conversion types of technology and some of it is very research-oriented, and some of it is more practical.”

Vanderbilt rising sophomore Danny McClanahan, a mechanical engineering and computer science major, has been working on his school’s collaborative energy-efficient home with Middle Tennessee State University for the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon 2015. He says knowledge in solar will translates to work in any number of additional fields.

“I was interviewing at an aerospace company out in California yesterday, and they were very interested in what I had done with the Solar Decathlon in respects to their environmental control department which is a requirement for their rockets,” he says.

“It is not only useful in the solar industry, but you can come back and apply it to things like aerospace.”

Steve Johnson of Lightwave Solar in Nashville says research and new solar technology can take at least 10 years from lab to market, but likes the spark of interest something like solar-powered road panels stirs up in the public.

“It is a great idea and someone has to take a first step,” he says.

“And of course I read all the trade magazines and go to shows and there are always things people cook up in labs and academia. And maybe some of them will happen.”

Dodd Galbreath, founding director and assistant professor at Lipscomb University’s Institute for Sustainable Practice has seen graduates lean more toward the entrepreneur side of things, creating businesses that meet their chosen fields.

“Our students are out there doing really neat stuff, being the leaders and innovators,” he says. “They are doing what this generation is really consistent about doing, which is integrating their life with their values.

“They are becoming single-car families and buying closer to the center of town. They are choosing to create the kind of entrepreneurial behavior that will allow them to make a living but make their community a better place.”

Hopkins likes to say the future is bright for solar in the state.

“There is a lot going on that people aren’t really aware of,” Hopkins says.

“In the southeast we are definitely a leader across the board from research to implementation.

“From scope and depth of research that is ongoing across the state to the actual amount of solar generation capacity in deployment, UT and other schools are helping lead the way there.”

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