Newswise — Harnessing the power of the sun can help meet the increasing demand for energy worldwide—and the solar cell research group at South Dakota State University is doing its part to make this possible.

Electrical engineering professor Qiquan Qiao, who coordinates the Center for Advanced Photovoltaics and Sustainable Energy, is helping students and faculty from universities in Israel, Egypt, Pakistan and China gain the basic expertise needed to exploit their nations’ solar energy-generating potential.

“These countries experience energy shortages, but have a high potential for solar power production. We help them boost their utilization of renewable energy,” said Qiao. “These projects, not only increase SDSU’s international reputation, but help us recruit top graduate students.”

Collaborating with Israeli, Pakistani scientists

In a two-year project funded through the United States-Israel Binational Science Foundation in 2009, Qiao visited Michael Bendikov, then an associate professor of organic chemistry at the Weizmann Institute of Science, for 10 days. Bendikov used a new organic material that he developed to fabricate a solar cell.

Since 2013, Qiao has helped researchers from Pakistan’s Ghulam Ishaq Khan Institute of Engineering Sciences and Technology learn basic techniques for developing dye-sensitized solar cells through a grant from the National Academy of Sciences.  

Qiao went to Pakistan in December 2013 to participate in the first GIKI-SDSU International Symposium on the Design of Dye-Sensitized Solar Cells for Cost Effective Solar Energy Harvesting. The following summer, GIKI professor Muhammad Hassan Sayyad was trained at SDSU, learning how to fabricate, test and optimize dye-sensitized solar cells.

Two more conferences, one in 2015 on alternative energy solutions for Pakistan and another in 2016 on next-generation energy technologies, have further developed the collaborative effort. In addition, GIKI doctoral student Nazi Nasr spent six months in Brookings learning how to fabricate dye-sensitized solar cells. 

“This collaborative project is an integral part of helping us acquire the equipment and the skills needed to do cutting-edge solar cell research and to move our nation forward in developing renewable energy technologies,” Sayyad said.

Exploring new solar cell materials

Through the National Academy of Sciences and the U.S. Agency for International Development, Qiao has worked with researchers from Egypt on two projects. The first focused on fabricating an organic solar cell. For the most recent project, Qiao plans to bring several graduate students from Damietta University in Egypt to SDSU to receive training on perovskite solar cells during the upcoming academic year.

Perovskite, a new light-absorbing material first used in solar cells in 2009, has garnered extensive attention from researchers, Qiao explained. “The efficiency of perovskite solar cells has increased from around 3 percent to as much as 22 percent. It’s a hot topic in the solar cell field.”

High efficiency combined with low processing costs are the main advantages of perovskite solar cells; however, Qiao cautioned, “Anything that is easy to manufacture will typically be easy to break—these solar cells have a short life. That’s the challenge.”

Wenjin Yue, a visiting scientist from Anhui Polytechnic University in China, came to SDSU in August 2016 and will be here until December 2017. Yue studied polymer solar cells during her doctoral work and her adviser was familiar with Qiao’s work.

She’s the third Chinese scientist to learn solar cell fabrication techniques in Qiao’s lab through support from the Chinese government. In addition to Yue, scientists from Tianjin University of Technology and Anhui Agricultural University in China have done research at SDSU.

Yue’s research focuses on the layer of the perovskite solar cell that transports electrons. “Titanium oxide is not an ideal material because its synthesis needs high temperature, which would lead to high cost,” she explained. She’ll be looking at indium sulfide and cadmium sulfide as potential materials for electron transport.

“Here, the equipment is very advanced,” commented Yue. Once she returns to China, she will apply for funding to continue her research at Anhui Polytechnic University.