Mercy College Faculty Member Explores New Materials for Providing Solar Energy

Photo of Dr. Thompson

A new study, conducted by a research team that includes Mercy College Assistant Professor of Chemistry Robert Thompson, Ph.D., has been published in a prestigious scientific journal. The article, “Designing Amphiphilic Conjugated Polyelectrolytes for Self-Assembly into Straight-Chain Rod-like Micelles,” appeared in the April issue of Macromolecules, a peer-reviewed journal of the American Chemical Society. The research was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). 

“The article describes how our research team synthesized a new material known as semiconducting polymer electrolyte—a water soluble plastic that can be used to make photovoltaic solar cells,” said Thompson. “Essentially, we are designing plastic solar cells, which are a potentially cheaper and more convenient method of providing solar energy than traditional cells made from silicon.” 

Harnessing solar energy by using polymers is a new arm of energy research supported by the NSF, the U.S. armed services and other federal agencies. Central to the technology are polymer electrolytes which allow plastic solar cells to be thinner, lighter and more flexible than silicon-based cells. They are also cheaper to manufacture, easily disposable and potentially have less negative environmental impact. What’s more, they are highly adaptable to everyday use. “For example, on a camping trip, you could pull a folded plastic solar cell out of your backpack and use it to charge your phone or power a lantern,” said Thompson. 

As an expert in plastic solar cells, a new technology that is still in its infancy, Thompson cited some of the challenges researchers face. “Staunch proponents of silicon solar cells rightly point out the shortfalls in plastic solar cells,” he said. For example, polymer composites are unstable and quick to degrade, and are less efficient than silicon cells. Moreover, current manufacturing practices generate lead waste, which is harmful to the environment. 

“My colleagues and I are working to improve efficiency and lessen the environmental impact of plastic solar cells,” said Thompson. “What makes this research so exciting is the potential to create lightweight, portable plastic solar cells that are simpler to make and use in many situations. This study is just one step along the way to advancing the huge potential of energy research. It opens the door to new possibilities.” 

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