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Researchers develop solar paint

Chris Barnes | Tuesday, January 24, 2012

The sharper reflection on Notre Dame’s football helmets in the sunlight is not the only cutting-edge development featuring light technology on campus.

Sponsored by the Department of Energy, a team of Notre Dame researchers led by Professor Prashant Kamat is currently engineering a type of paint that can generate electricity upon exposure to light.

Kamat, who is working with graduate students James Radich and Ian Lightcap, said his work to harness the electric potential of the sun’s rays has been a long time coming.

“We’ve been conducting solar photochemistry research for more than two decades,” Kamat said.

Radich said the idea for the use of sunlight as a primary source of energy compelled the researchers to pursue this elusive possibility.

“The number of surfaces available that are impinged upon by sunlight on a daily basis makes a technology such as paint very attractive,” he said.

Kamat said the fundamental principle of developing the paint was to utilize the special conducive properties of various metals.

“This project includes a whole array of semiconductors, such as silicon, cadmium and telluride, which are currently employed in solar cells,” said Kamat. “The paint’s semiconductors absorb light and generate charge carriers that are tapped in photovoltaic cells to generate electricity.”

Though he and his team have made great strides in cultivating the paint, Kamat said his work in maximizing the product’s quality is far from over.

“So far what we’ve shown is a proof of concept, which is only the first of a four-phase step in scientific discovery,” Kamat said. “We need to boost the paint’s efficiency to more than five percent, but the external funding support and the research progress will determine the duration of product development.”

Lightcap said his team needs more time to fully develop its discovery.

“We optimistically estimate that development of the paint into a product with competitive efficiency and stability will take a few years to a decade to reach fruition,” he said. “We are confident that a few of our Notre Dame undergrads working on this and related projects will make the next breakthrough.”

Kamat said their research has yielded a product with incredible properties, naming the paint “Sun-Believable.”

“A large number of people still do not believe that solar energy is a viable energy alternative that could become part of our energy portfolio,” he said. “However, the facts contradict this opinion. The food that we eat comes from the conversion of sunlight into carbohydrates, and the fossil fuels that we use today are stored energy from the Sun. The simplicity of the approach in this work highlights the cause.”

Kamat added the development of the paint represents a leap into the largely untapped well of renewable energy.

“Many efforts are needed to attain sustainable energy,” he said. “There is no single silver bullet to meet our clean energy demand, so we also need to consider various alternatives to oil and coal, such as wind power, hydropower, biomass and geothermal energy.”

Lightcap said this work has given him hope for a future of cleaner forms of energy.

“Our work is the first step in right direction toward setting our sights on renewable energy forms that are accessible to everyone,” he said. “Transforming the costly and time-intensive construction of solar cells into a simple, paint-like approach is one direction we can take to achieve that goal.”