TEES

Texas A&M and UT Austin partner on solar energy research center

August 25, 2016
| By: Reeve Hamilton

It does not require a force as powerful as the sun to get Texas A&M University and The University of Texas at Austin to work together, but it certainly helps. The institutions, along with Texas A&M University-Central Texas and the Texas A&M Engineering Experiment Station, are officially collaborating on a major solar research initiative following the awarding of a new grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The three Texas A&M University System members were recently awarded a four-year, $400,000 grant from NSF to address the technical and non-technical challenges in the widespread adoption of solar energy. This Texas A&M collaboration will form a research site in the NSF’s Center for Next Generation Photovoltaics, an existing research and development center that is led by UT Austin and includes other university and industry partners. The NSF grant also requires a minimum of $800,000 in private funds to help support the research.

“Our system is strongest when our members join forces, and this project is a great example of that,” said Texas A&M System Chancellor John Sharp. “This same principle holds true for our state and all of its public universities, so this collaboration is important and very encouraging.”

This Center for Next Generation Photovoltaics is one of only 80 Industry/University Cooperative Research Centers (I/UCRC) supported by the NSF, which established the I/UCRC program in 1973 to encourage collaboration and develop partnerships among industry, academic and government entities. It is the only such center focused on solar research. In addition to the Texas A&M and UT Austin research sites, it includes a site located at Colorado State University. Colorado School of Mines also supports the center as a partner university.

“This is a perfect trifecta,” said Dr. Robert Balog, a Co-director of the Texas A&M site and Associate Professor in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Texas A&M. “University faculty and students benefit from working closely with industry on application-specific problems; industry benefits from the expertise and research capabilities at the university that add value to their organization; and ultimately, society benefits because the collaboration accelerates the cost-effective commercialization of renewable energy technology and enhances education opportunities.”

Photovoltaic (also known as “solar”) technology produces electricity directly from the sun, which is a free source of energy. 

“The last few years have seen a drastic drop in the commercial cost of photovoltaic cells,” Balog said. “However, the industry is still nascent and requires additional research and development to move the needle on solar-energy conversion technologies from an alternative to a mainstream energy source.”

The research conducted by the center is focused in four areas: photovoltaic materials, devices and manufacturing; balance of systems and photovoltaic implementation; photovoltaic integration with storage and electric vehicles; and education and societal impact of photovoltaics.

Despite their long-standing rivalry in athletics, Texas A&M and UT Austin often work together on research papers and projects. They have numerous synergies when it comes to renewable energy and the collaboration leverages the vast expertise from institutions.

“The Center for Next Generation Photovoltaics has become a world-leading international portal for solar research, fostering close collaboration between academic researchers and industry partners to speed innovation, adoption of emerging solar cell technology, economic development and job creation,” said Dr. Brian Korgel, Director of the Center and the Edward S. Hyman Endowed Chair in Engineering and T. Brockett Hudson Professor of Chemical Engineering at UT Austin. “It’s fitting that our state’s powerhouse universities should work together in this way to benefit Texans and others for generations to come.”

“This is an astonishing center, with five universities, a Texas state agency, over 100 faculty members and over 300 students at the postdoctoral, doctoral, master’s and bachelor’s levels all working on solar energy research,” said Texas A&M-Central Texas Vice President for Research and Economic Development Russell Porter, a Co-director of the Texas A&M site. “And we have over 20 private companies, non-governmental organizations and government organizations providing funds to support the research. It is truly an honor to be a part of such an important, collaborative effort.”

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