Tandon students win top prize in U.S. Department of Energy competition

Team Heliotrope has a winning method of boosting solar-panel efficiency

two smiling students holding oversized check

Doctoral students Minh Tran and Casey Bloomquist took home first-place honors and a cash award of $50,000

Minh Tran and Casey Bloomquist know there are a lot of strides to be made before we achieve net zero (when the amount of greenhouse gas we produce does not exceed the amount removed from the environment). More efficient solar panels would help, but scalable research developments in that realm have been few and far between.

The issue with the silicon solar cells now being manufactured is that they are not the best match for the solar spectrum. Only certain wavelengths can be efficiently used with existing cells. For example, ultraviolet and blue light are not converted to electrical power as well as infrared light, and this means that a great deal of the potential energy that could be captured is wasted.

What if instead of changing the panels, it was possible to change the sun itself, Tran and Bloomquist wondered?

The two have developed a film coating that can be applied to solar panels to shift the light spectrum, turning ultraviolet and blue light (from the less efficient band of the spectrum) into near-infrared light (the more efficient source for solar cells).

Calling themselves Heliotrope, Tran, who is earning her doctoral degree this year in Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering under the mentorship of Professor Eray Aydil, and Bloomquist, a doctoral candidate who works with Professors Aydil and Miguel Modestino, entered a competition sponsored by the Department of Energy’s Office of Technology Transitions. The EnergyTech University Prize (EnergyTech UP), as it is called, attracted almost 200 teams from across the country, and at the April 3 national finals, held in Austin, Texas, the pair took home first-place honors and a cash award of $50,000.   

Although Minh recently defended her dissertation and will be graduating from Tandon, the two are continuing work on their technology and plan to launch a startup. They are finalists in the NYU Entrepreneurs Challenge and will compete for $75k in the final round in May 2023. 

They expect to attract great interest from the industry, since in addition to measurably boosting the efficiency of the panels, changing the light spectrum has other benefits: for example, UV rays can cause the cells to degrade more quickly, necessitating troublesome and expensive replacement, but shifting the rays into the near-infrared part of the spectrum can mitigate that situation. The coating is also the only material of its kind that doesn't use toxic and environmentally damaging lead — a boon to manufacturers hoping to stay ahead of the regulatory curve.

“We’re proud that our lab research is resulting in a marketable product with the potential to make a major impact on the solar industry,” they say. “We hope that winning EnergyTech UP is just the beginning.”