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UToledo physicists awarded $7.4 million to rev up solar technology to power space vehicles

The U.S. Air Force awarded a team of physicists at The University of Toledo $7.4 million to enhance the reliability and efficiency of lightweight power to improve the safety and effectiveness of Department of Defense missions.

Dr. Randall Ellingson, professor in the UToledo Department of Physics and Astronomy, and the UToledo Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization will lead the five-year contract to develop solar technology that is lightweight, flexible, highly efficient and durable in space so it can provide power for space vehicles using sunlight.

Dr. Randall Ellingson has received $7.4 million from the U.S. Air Force to develop solar technology that is lightweight, flexible, highly efficient and durable to improve the safety and effectiveness of Department of Defense missions.

Ellingson is applying his persistent dedication to discovery in the fast-growing field of photovoltaics to champion the U.S. armed forces by advancing power generation technologies for space vehicle applications to survive natural and man-made threats.

“Our goal is to protect our troops and enhance national security by accelerating the performance of solar cells,” Ellingson said. “Our primary goal is to reduce the power system payload by developing highly efficient and lightweight technology to replace liquid fuels and minimize battery storage needs.”

In order for the technology to achieve both high efficiency and the flexibility to be used on a curved surface like a wing or fuselage, Ellingson’s team is making tandem solar cells — two different solar cells stacked on top of each other that use two different parts of the sun’s spectrum — on very thin, flexible supporting material.

UToledo physicists have had great success drawing record levels of power from the same amount of sunlight using the tandem technique with what are called perovskites, compound materials with a special crystal structure formed through chemistry.

“The University of Toledo is a worldwide leader driving innovation in photovoltaics research, education and application,” Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur said. “This critical collaboration with the U.S. Air Force strengthens national security and fuels a cleaner energy future for generations to come.”

UToledo’s flexible, lightweight, low-cost technology will be tested under space-like radiation exposure.

“In outer space, the radiation environment is much more harsh, where high-energy photons and particles, arising from both our sun and our galaxy, can damage the solar cells,” Ellingson said.

“We are proud our photovoltaics team at The University of Toledo has been selected once again to use its state-of-the-art expertise to advance Air Force missions in service to the nation,” Dr. Frank Calzonetti, UToledo vice president for research, said. “This major award demonstrates the high regard the U.S. Air Force has in The University of Toledo’s solar energy research capabilities and the confidence in our research team. Dr. Ellingson has performed exceptionally well in meeting the high demands of the Air Force in providing research that supports the nation’s defense posture.”

For more than three decades, The University of Toledo has focused with precision on the potential of photovoltaics to transform the world and improve sustainability to combat the energy crisis.

Harold McMaster, an inventor and namesake of UToledo’s McMaster Hall, pioneered the vision for commercializing solar energy in northwest Ohio and donated funds to UToledo to gather great minds and craft solutions.

One of the world’s largest manufacturer of solar cells, First Solar, originated in UToledo laboratories.

The University created the Wright Center for Photovoltaics Innovation and Commercialization in January 2007 with $18.6 million in support from the Ohio Department of Development, along with matching contributions of $30 million from federal agencies, universities and industrial partners. The center works to strengthen the photovoltaics and manufacturing base in Ohio, through materials and design innovation.

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