Messenger - Vol. 3, No. 1, Page 8
Fall 1993
On Campus
A place in the sun

     The scientists and engineers at the University of Delaware Institute
of Energy Conversion (IEC) are convinced that their research is leading to
the day when solar energy becomes the global fuel of choice.
     "Everyone who works here is motivated by the idea that they are
helping to develop the technology of the future," says IEC's acting
director Robert W. Birkmire.
     The technology that Birkmire refers to is called thin-film
photovoltaics, a semiconductor delivery system for turning sunlight into
electricity. The thin-film process is still experimental, and today, most
solar panels are made of crystalline silicon, which is 100 to 1,000 times
thicker than thin-film.
     Over the past three years, the solar industry produced $400 million
worth of photovoltaic modules, made mostly of crystalline silicon, and sold
them all over the world. The electricity produced by this method costs
about 30 to 40 cents per kilowatt hour. Sun fuel will have a hard time
competing with fossil fuel until costs can be brought down to about 10
cents per kilowatt hour.
     "We've converted sunlight to electricity for years. The trick now is
to do it more cost efficiently," Birkmire says. One of IEC's key missions
is to bring those costs down by refining the thin-film process and making
it applicable to as many photovoltaic materials as possible.
     IEC has produced thin-film solar cells with a 10 percent efficiency
from a number of inexpensive materials, including cadmium telluride, copper
indium diselenide and the industry standard at the moment, amorphous
silicon. In fact, IEC has the distinction of being the only solar energy
lab in the world to have achieved that goal.
     The institute is also responsible for 25 patents covering new
semiconductor materials, processing techniques and solar cell designs. It
also works with federal agencies and industry to refine and analyze solar
     IEC's contributions to thin-film research were recognized last year
when the U.S. Department of Energy honored the institute by officially
designating it a center of excellence for photovoltaic research and
education, guaranteeing it $5 million in funding over the next four years.
     Both graduate and undergraduate students majoring in engineering,
science, social science and other disciplines have been part of IEC's team.
     The institute can boast of training more than 50 professionals who are
active in today's photovoltaic industry and introducing 20 Ph.D graduates
and 50 master's degree graduates to photovoltaics.
     Birkmire says IEC intends to increase the number of students brought
into the program, giving young people a greater opportunity to work with
the multidisciplinary team at the institute and enhancing their interest in
the fuel of the future.
                                                  -Barbara Garrison