Columbia’s Engineering School has one solution for making buildings greener—hybrid solar cells that produce heat and electricity simultaneously.
Three departments at Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Science—physics, chemistry, and engineering—are actively researching how to create more efficient hybrid solar cells.
In December, Weidlinger Associates, a New York City-based structural engineering firm, received a $150,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to work with Columbia to develop sturdy hybrid solar roofing panels. The grant was matched by a 10 percent commitment from New York State. They had applied for one grant in July from the National Science Foundation, and another from the Department of Energy.
Huiming Yin, assistant professor of civil engineering and engineering mechanics and creator of the panels, said that the purpose of the project was to create more efficient solar cells.
“We want to increase the efficiency of solar cells in our experimentation so that the solar cells don’t waste so much energy when they absorb sunlight,” Yin said.
According to James Yardley, professor of electrical engineering, sixteen professors from different departments are involved in the program, as well as researchers from the University of Texas, Purdue University, University of Arkansas, and Tel Aviv University in Israel.
The first phase of the project, which started on Dec. 7, demonstrates the purpose of the project. If this phase is successful, Columbia and Weidlinger will move their work into a second phase in June that involves making the products ready for the market. $1 million in funds from the Energy Department for a year—to further develop the technology—would fund the second phase. A third phase, which has not been confirmed yet, would entail the production of solar panels for consumers. This would require up to $10 million to prepare the technology.
Yardley, who is also the director of the Columbia Energy Frontier Research Center, said that EFRC focuses on developing frontiers for solar cells—particularly in making them more effective and efficient.
Although many students still do not know about the research, those who do agree that it would be beneficial to have the solar cells—once they are perfected—in the hands of consumers.
“I think the one way we can really deal with climate change is with solar energy,” Bianca Rahill-Marier, SEAS ’12, said. “It would be amazing if Columbia could make something like that, but I feel like if it were so groundbreaking, more people would know about it.”
“If they can make them [the solar cells] cheaper, it already has a good chance of becoming useful. I wouldn’t want it to make the buildings less pretty. Columbia’s architecture is pretty amazing,” Kathleen Tatem, SEAS ’13, added.
Once more research is completed, Yin said, the three departments will share their results with the schools and the community. He said the cells will be placed in the engineering terrace to demonstrate their power to students, and they plan to build a system on top of Frederick Douglass High School to show high school students.
Yin also said that, provided that research goes well, in the near future the science departments at SEAS will teach students how these hybrid solar cells work. Yin foresees this taking place in about two years.
Though much progress is being made, Yardley said that the science departments still have a few years to go before they have concrete evidence of the cells’ power.
“We are just getting started,” Yardley said. “There is still much work to be done.”