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Purdue gets grant to develop cheaper solar cell

WEST LAFAYETTE — Purdue University researchers are working to increase the efficiency of a new solar cell that they say could become a significant player in energy production.

A team led by chemical engineering professor Rakesh Agrawal is working with solar cells made from copper zinc tin sulfide. The compound known as CZTS is synthesized into nanocrystals that resemble a dark ink that can absorb light.

The ink is applied to specially coated glass squares, heated and applied with nanoelectronics so they can be used to turn sunlight into electricity, the Journal & Courier reported.

Graduate student Erik Sheets said the resulting solar cell is cheaper than silicon-based solar cells on the market.

Agrawal, whose lab was the first to make CZTS nanocrystals, said the focus of the work is to make the solar cell inexpensive and boost its efficiency.

The researchers have received a $750,000 grant from the Department of Energy for their work, which includes making a prototype that can be mass-produced at a low cost.

"The key aspect of our work is to make this inexpensive," Agrawal said.

Currently, the Purdue team's solar cells are one inch square and achieve only 8.4 percent efficient use of the sunlight energy. Agrawal said researchers aim to boost that to 15 percent.

To be competitive with other energy technologies, solar cells must be capable of generating terawatts, or trillions of watts, at a cost of 50 cents per peak watt of electricity, Agrawal said.

The Department of Energy predicts solar energy could provide 14 percent of U.S. electricity needs by 2030 and 27 percent by 2050 if those targets are met.

Graduate student Nathan Carter says he thinks solar power will be "a dominant player" in the nation's energy picture in coming years.

"I think we are going to move away from oil or any one (energy source) dominating 70 percent of energy consumption," Carter said. "It is going to be a much more cooperative effort between solar, wind, natural gas, biomass. But I think solar has the highest potential among any renewable energy."

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