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Seizing the Day(light)

Mark Thompson, professor of chemistry and materials science in USC College. Photo credit Max S. Gerber.
Mark Thompson, professor of chemistry and materials science in USC College. Photo credit Max S. Gerber.

Using the sun’s energy to improve our quality of life is not a new idea. A relatively more recent development, however, is converting solar radiation into electricity. From calculators to satellites, solar cells can be found in schools, businesses and cities across the globe.

Despite the widespread use of solar energy, vast improvements are still needed in the field, according to Mark Thompson, professor of chemistry and materials science in USC College.

Thompson, who has studied solar cells for the past 20 years, will spend the next five years developing materials to improve the efficiency of solar cells as part of a U.S. Department of Energy grant.

The College and USC Viterbi were jointly awarded the $12.5 million grant, which resulted in the on-campus Center for Energy Nanoscience (CEN), of which Thompson is associate director. “CEN’s mission is to develop materials and processes for solid state lighting and solar energy conversion,” Thompson said.

“The center arose out of long-standing collaborations between Viterbi and College faculty,” said P. Daniel Dapkus, William M. Keck Professor of Engineering at USC Viterbi and director of the CEN. “Mark has been a key person in those collaborations for several years. His research is at the crossroads between fundamental chemistry and device applications.”

The unique goal of the center is to compare and analyze the properties of organic and inorganic solar devices. The former is less expensive to produce, yet also less efficient in energy management, while the latter performs better but has a higher price tag.

One of the issues that Thompson, his team and researchers at USC Viterbi will explore is how to make solar cells better at collecting light. “The way it works now, we can collect all the light, but some of it gets wasted,” he said. According to Thompson, typically only 25 percent of the light collected in organic devices can be turned into electricity.

Although their long-term objectives involve technological advances in the field, Thompson points out that in the coming years the team’s most important goal is to gain a complete understanding of the workings of solar devices. “We’re focused on developing the materials that will allow us to answer some really fundamental questions in these devices,” Thompson said.

“We’re making technical advances by building a better understanding of the science.”

Read more articles from USC College Magazine's Spring/Summer 2010 issue.