Fairfield University School of Engineering Assistant Professor Ryan Munden receives grant to study solar cells for residential rooftops and spacecrafts

Increased support for creating renewable energy sources to meet the nation's energy needs has reinvigorated research into solar energy. Fairfield University's School of Engineering is one place where the potential of solar energy is being explored.

Image: Dr. Ryan MundenAssistant Professor of Electrical Engineering Dr. Ryan Munden's research into making it a more efficient and widely used energy source recently got a boost when he was awarded a $20,000 grant from the Connecticut NASA Space Grant College Consortium. Also at Fairfield, there is an experimental 12.5 kW solar cell photovoltaic array operating on the campus, a project initiated seven years ago by Dr. Vagos Hadjimichael, the dean of the School of Engineering. Their hope, like many other engineers and scientists, is that improved efficiency of photovoltaic devices - they absorb sunlight to make electricity - will help lessen the world's reliance on oil and coal. This comes as federal and state governments are encouraging eco-friendly solar panel technology development to compete with fossil fuels - major polluters. President Obama has also pledged his support of solar energy projects.

Dr. Munden's research project, entitled, "High Efficiency Nanowire Photovoltaics," concerns expanding the efficiency and viability of photovoltaic devices. "Ultimately, my research is about enhancing the efficiency of the solar cells, whether they be on a residential rooftop or on a spacecraft," he said.

The goal is to make highly efficient solar cells, so even in the often overcast and chilly Northeast, solar roof panels - like the array on Fairfield student townhouses - can harness a substantially larger amount of solar energy.

The work continues a line of nanotechnology research Dr. Munden started while studying nanowires at Yale University and continued when he joined the Fairfield faculty last year. The grant will go toward the building of a new nanotechnology lab at the School of Engineering to research this endeavor.

Research projects like Dr. Munden's have ramifications for shuttle missions, too. That's because advanced solar power supplies enabled by nanotechnology will become a key element to NASA's mission of space exploration. Future NASA projects will require greater power for more advanced instrumentation and computation in more remote and hostile terrestrial and extraterrestrial environments.

According to Dr. Munden, "Nanowire-enhanced solar cells offer greater surface area for photon capture, as well as shorter path lengths to the junction interface."

First year results expect to demonstrate solar cell devices utilizing nanowires can meet or exceed traditional silicon solar cell efficiencies of 10 to 20%, showing viability of continued research and providing results to pursue further funding. Unique nanowire growth and characterization facilities at Yale will be utilized to more quickly achieve results while a fully-equipped lab is built at Fairfield for nano-enhanced solar cell research.

"This is just the beginning," said Dr. Munden. "I hope to attract national funding down the road."

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Media Contact: Meg McCaffrey, (203) 254-4000, ext. 2726, mmccaffrey@fairfield.edu

Posted on March 15, 2010

Vol. 42, No. 233

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