CORVALLIS, Ore. - A newly created signature research center at Oregon State University may give Oregon the potential to become an international leader in solar cell innovation and manufacturing.

The Oregon Process Innovation Center for Sustainable Solar Cell Manufacturing has now been set up at OSU with almost $2.7 million in new funding, and researchers believe the technologies that may emerge from it could dramatically change the global solar energy industry.

"We're reaching the limits of what can be done through incremental improvements in traditional, silicon-based solar cell technology," said Greg Herman, an associate professor of chemical engineering at OSU and associate director of the center. "We're aiming for a revolution in solar cell processing and manufacturing that might drop costs by as much as 90 percent while being more environmentally sensitive."

The center will involve the efforts of  more than 20 faculty and researchers from OSU, the University of Oregon, Portland State University and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, allow collaboration with private industry, and provide unique student educational opportunities in some of the newest concepts in solar energy.

The center has already acquired some of its new equipment and will be fully operational by this May, officials say. It is a signature research facility of the Oregon Built Environment and Sustainable Technologies Center, or Oregon BEST, which provided an initial investment of $232,000 and helped to obtain additional funding.

The facilities are being set up at the Microproducts Breakthrough Institute, a signature research facility of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute. Additional support comes from OSU, ONAMI, and a three-year grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to OSU, CH2M HILL, Voxtel and the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Both Oregon BEST and ONAMI were established by the Oregon legislature to connect Oregon businesses with a network of university laboratories and turn research in products, services and jobs.

The new center will help solar energy companies improve existing technologies, and also move toward next-generation solar cell concepts. It will provide a shared laboratory and equipment, serve as a resource to solve industry manufacturing problems, and be an educational training ground for solar energy engineers and scientists of the future.

The key to these advances - and the businesses and jobs they may produce - is a completely new approach to solar cell manufacturing, according to Chih-hung Chang, director of the center and the Sharp Laboratories Faculty Scholar at OSU.

"The current silicon technology has its limits," said Chang, an associate professor in the School of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering. "We need huge improvements in lowering solar cell manufacturing cost that current technology will probably not give us."

An example of the alternative approaches, Chang said, may be such processes as "microreactor-assisted nanomaterial deposition," in which thin-film deposition is made on various substrates from a chemical stream, one application of which can reduce the reflectance of light striking the material. Approaches such as this, and other evolving technologies, may make solar energy more efficient than previous systems, while reducing use of water, energy and hazardous chemicals.

The center will work closely with some of the leaders in solar energy in Oregon and around the world, Chang said. Collaboration is planned with Oregon companies such as SolarWorld, Voxtel and CH2M Hill, as well as leading universities in Germany, Taiwan and South Korea.

"With the research and innovation that will emerge from this center, we believe it's possible for solar energy manufacturing to help fill the void left in Oregon by the loss of some semiconductor companies," Herman said. "We have a well-trained high technology workforce, supporting companies, the necessary supply chain, and other infrastructure in place to make this happen."

Additional funding to support more research initiatives will be sought from federal agencies such as the Department of Energy, National Science Foundation, Department of Defense and others. A range of existing and new processes for photovoltaic products will be studied, international collaboration will be expanded and other initiatives considered.

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Chih-hung Chang, 541-737-8548