Harry Atwater is working on the forefront of alternative energy technologies. From his research in solar fuels to his innovation in photovoltaics, Atwater’s work addresses the energy crisis and strives to provide a more secure, sustainable future.

Currently, Atwater is the Howard Hughes Professor of Applied Physics and Materials Science at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) and Director of the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP). You can catch Atwater at the fifth international ECS Electrochemical Energy Summit, taking place October 12th through the 14th 2015 in Phoenix, AZ.

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Solutions for Storing Green Energy

Research into alternative sources of energy, such as solar and wind, are constantly growing and evolving. The science behind photovoltaics is improving constantly and wind turbines are producing more electrical energy than ever before. However, the question still stands of how we store and deliver this electrical energy to the grid. A few ECS members from Harvard University believe their new flow battery could answer that question.

Building off earlier research, the new and improve flow battery could offer a great solution for the reliability issue of energy sources such as wind and solar based on weather patterns. The batteries could store large amounts of electrical energy that can delivered to commercial and residential establishments even when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun isn’t shining.


Development to Boost Solar Cell Usage


A working cell from Switzer’s research, with gas evolution.
Image: Sam O’Keefe, Missouri S&T.

In order to satisfy growing energy demands, scientists are looking for ways to develop and deploy a broad range of alternative energy sources that can be both efficient and environmentally friendly. At Missouri University of Science and Technology, a team is working to make clean energy more accessible through the development of a cheap, simple way to split hydrogen and oxygen through a new electrodeposition method.

ECS member and head researcher in the project, Jay Switzer, believes that the new development will produce highly efficient solar cells. He and ECS student member James Hill predict the process will be able to effectively gather solar energy for use as fuel, further increasing the amount of hydrogen available for fuel usage.

“The work helps to solve the problem that solar energy is intermittent,” says Switzer. “Obviously, we cannot have the sun produce energy on one spot the entire day, but our process converts the energy into a form that is more easily stored.”

Electrodeposition for Hydrogen

This from Missouri University of Science and Technology:

Switzer and his team use silicon wafers to absorb solar energy. The silicon is submerged in water, with the front surface exposed to a solar energy simulator and the back surface covered in electrodes to conduct the energy. The silicon has cobalt nano-islands formed onto it using a process called electrodeposition.


Solar-Powered, Transparent Batteries

The technology that was created for sci-fi movies may soon be reality. A new transparent, solar powered lithium ion battery has been developed by a team of researchers from Kogakuin University. Not only could this new battery bring transparent smartphones reminiscent of the Iron Man movies to life, but it could replace any transparent items (i.e. windows) for additional energy storage capabilities.

Since a team of researchers at Stanford University developed the first nearly transparent battery about four years ago, the team at Kogakuin University has been hard at work on their transparent battery that combines clarity with self-charging abilities.

Other researchers have been focusing on the qualities and potential of transparent materials. A team from Michigan State University began exploring this field last year to develop a transparent luminescent solar concentrator that can be used on buildings, cell phones, and other clear surfaces. However, this development did not have the functionality that the new transparent battery from Kogakuin University does.


Solar Cells Take Inspiration from Art

One of the more common issues with solar cell efficiency is their inability to move with the sun as it crosses the sky. While large scale solar panels can be fitted with bulky motorized trackers, those with rooftop solar panels do not have that luxury. In an effort to solve this issues, researchers are drawing some inspiration from art in their mission toward higher solar efficiency.

Scientists are applying some of the shapes and designs from the ancient art of kirigami—the Japanese art of paper cutting—to develop a solar cell that can capture up to 36 percent more energy due to the design’s ability to grab more sun.

“The design takes what a large tracking solar panel does and condenses it into something that is essentially flat,” said Aaron Lamoureux, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering and first author on the paper.

In the United States alone, there are currently over 20,000 MW of operational solar capacity. Nearly 640,000 U.S. homes have opted to rely on solar power. However, if the home panels were able to follow the sun’s movement on a daily basis, we could see a dramatic increase in efficiency and usage.


High Solar Efficiency Through Water-Splitting

Rice University researchers (clockwise from left) Chloe Doiron, Hossein Robatjazi, Shah Mohammad Bahauddin and Isabell Thomann.

Rice University researchers (clockwise from left) Chloe Doiron, Hossein Robatjazi, Shah Mohammad Bahauddin and Isabell Thomann.

A team from Rice University, led by assistant professor and ECS member Isabell Thomann, has demonstrate a highly efficient way to harness energy from the sun though the splitting of water molecules.

Through the configuration of light-activated gold nanoparticles, the team was able to successfully harvest and transfer energy to what the scientists refer to as “hot electrons.”

“Hot electrons have the potential to drive very useful chemical reactions, but they decay very rapidly, and people have struggled to harness their energy,” said Thomann. “For example, most of the energy losses in today’s best photovoltaic solar panels are the result of hot electrons that cool within a few trillionths of a second and release their energy as wasted heat.”

If the hot electrons could be capture before they have the opportunity to cool, society could be seeing a significant increase to energy conversion efficiencies.


nanomaterialMore and more people are looking toward nanomaterials to help solve issues in the energy infrastructure. Not only could this technology lead to more efficient and cost effective renewable energy sources, but could also help the development of devices that remove pollutants from the air and water. In fact, nanotechnology has such a vast scope that there is potential for it to impact almost all areas of society.

“There is not a field that is not touched,” said nanomaterials expert Francis D’Souza of the University of North Texas. “It is a group of very eminent scientists exploring the possibilities in every single field. You can expect big discoveries and breakthroughs.”

While nanomaterials are infiltrating everything from electronics to biomedical applications, many scientists have shift their primary focus to energy harvesting.

“There are so many new capabilities that can be exploited with nanotechnology, from dramatic improvements to solar conversion efficiency to battery systems with higher storage capacity and faster charging and discharging cycles to miniaturized power management systems, so we can have energy storage that can last for a long time,” said IBM’s Lili Deligianni.


Lili Deligianni is a Research Scientist and Principal Investigator at IBM’s Thomas J. Watson Research Center. Her innovative work in chemical engineering has led to cutting-edge developments in chip technology and thin film solar cells. Lili has been with ECS for many years and currently serves as the Society’s Secretary.

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Light-Driven Reactions Now More Efficient

The new process uses light to do photochemistry instead of the traditional method of using heat to do chemistry.Image: Emory University

The new process uses light to do photochemistry instead of the traditional method of using heat to do chemistry.
Image: Emory University

Scientists from Emory University are opening yet another door to renewable energy efforts. Their new way of performing light-driven reactions based on plasmon—the motion of free electrons that strongly absorb and scatter light—is said to be much more effective than previous processes.

“We’ve discovered a new and unexpected way to use plasmonic metal that holds potential for use in solar energy conversion,” says Tim Lian, professor of physical chemistry at Emory University and the lead author of the research. “We’ve shown that we can harvest the high energy electrons excited by light in plasmon and then use this energy to do chemistry.”

To get a better understanding of surface plasmonic, just think of how a cathedral’s stained glass windows absorb and shatter light.

Researchers involved in this study believe their plasmonic centered process could apply to efforts in electronics and renewable energy. Using plasmon could potentially make light-driven charge transfer for solar energy conversion much more efficient.


Japan Turns Golf Courses into Solar Farms

It’s all about repurposing. At least, that looks to be the case for Japan’s energy grid.

Beth Schademann, ECS’s Publications Specialist, recently came across a Business Insider article detailing Japan’s initiative to turn abandoned golf courses into solar power plants.

Japan’s Kyocera Corporation is taking the unused green space and making clean, renewable solar farms. They’re starting off big with a 23 megawatt solar plant that will produce enough energy to power around 8,100 households.

And they’re not stopping there. After their first project goes live in 2017, the company will go full force into their 92 megawatt solar plant project that is expected to power over 30,000 households.

Japan’s abandoned golf courses are prime real estate for solar farms, and there’s no shortage of potential here.


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