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Professor hot on trail of affordable solar energy

The possibility of plugging in the sun as the earth’s main power resource has orbited around inside scientists’ imaginations for decades. Aba Ebong, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UNC Charlotte, hopes the university’s new Photovoltaic Technology Research Laboratory will help make that a future reality.
The possibility of plugging in the sun as the earth’s main power resource has orbited around inside scientists’ imaginations for decades. Aba Ebong, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at UNC Charlotte, hopes the university’s new Photovoltaic Technology Research Laboratory will help make that a future reality. LISA THORNTON

A new laboratory at UNC Charlotte may someday help researchers create the technology that would make solar energy affordable for every household in the world.

The Photovoltaic Technology Research Laboratory, located in the university’s Energy Production and Infrastructure Building, a part of the Lee College of Engineering, has the capability to print solar cells, also called photovoltaic cells – the silicon wafers patterned with grids that convert the sunlight’s energy into electricity.

The new lab’s equipment – two state-of-the-art furnaces for cell production as well as a screen-printing system – was donated through a gift from TP Solar, a California-based firm that manufactures photovoltaic furnaces.

UNC Charlotte professor Aba Ebong, the lab’s director, helped secure the $1 million donation. Ebong’s long relationship with the company’s leaders dates back to 1997, when they worked together at Georgia Tech.

A professor of electrical and computer engineering, Ebong has dedicated much of his career to the study of solar energy, including ways to make it more efficient and affordable.

“One hour of sunlight can supply one year’s worth of energy to the entire world,” said Ebong. “But how do we convert that energy into electricity in a cost-effective way? That is a major problem that we want to solve.”

According to solarpanelscostguide.com, the upfront cost for the solar equipment needed to power the average home, which uses between 20 kilowatt-hours and 24 kilowatt-hours of electricity a day, would run around $20,000, not including the cost of installation.

Most states offer financial incentives to switch to solar power, and federal tax rebates also help, but it still usually boils down to getting a loan, said Ebong.

China has become a leader in mass production of photovoltaic cells, said Ebong, but their quality is sub-par.

“They’re not as efficient and reliable as we want them to be,” he said.

In the new lab, Ebong has been working on designing high-efficiency solar cells by changing the grid sizes on the silicon wafers.

Increasing the efficiency of solar cells means less cells and the support equipment they require needed to power a home.

It’s a solution that would also reduce the nation’s reliance on coal, oil, and natural gas.

“Those are things that are depleting,” said Ebong. “Sunlight has been there for billions of years, and will continue to be there. Just one hour is enough. If we can tap into it, then we can solve a real problem.”

The university’s new lab will not only help Ebong continue his research but also train future generations. Students will have hands-on opportunities to learn how solar cells work and how to produce them.

Ebong hopes the new lab will encourage more up-and-coming scientists to specialize in the study of photovoltaic energy as well. The more people interested in making solar energy commonplace throughout the world, the better the chance are of getting results.

“I’m not interested in pie in the sky,” he said. “I’m interested in solving real problems.”

Lisa Thornton is a freelance writer. Have a story idea for Lisa? Email her at lisathornton@followmylede.com.

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