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Dartmouth Engineering Awarded DOE Funding for Clean Energy Research

Sep 12, 2022   |   by Catha Mayor

Dartmouth will lead the US Department of Energy (DOE)-funded effort to discover new photovoltaic materials and will also participate in two Energy Frontier Research Centers (EFRCs) which bring together multi-disciplinary scientific teams to tackle the toughest challenges in energy technologies. One will investigate the basic science of water-splitting catalyst design for clean hydrogen production, and another will explore what determines positioning preference of neighboring atoms in semiconductor alloys, towards more energy-efficient computing.

Professor of Engineering and Program Area Lead for Materials Science and Engineering Jifeng Liu, and Hodgson Family Associate Professor of Engineering Geoffroy Hautier (Photo by Catha Mayor)

The funding is part of the more than $540 million in awards from DOE for university- and National Laboratory-led research into clean energy technologies and low-carbon manufacturing. 

Dartmouth Engineering Professor Geoffroy Hautier will lead the photovoltaics project entitled, "Understanding and designing phosphide solar absorbers with high carrier lifetime," along with Professor Jifeng Liu as a co-investigator. As for the two EFRCs, Hautier joins the Center for Electrochemical Dynamics and Reactions at Surfaces (CEDARS), led by North Carolina Agricultural and Technological University—the first historically Black college or university (HBCU) to lead an EFRC. And Liu is a co-investigator as well as an executive committee member with the EFRC, Manipulation of Atomic Ordering for Manufacturing Semiconductors (μ-ATOMS), led by University of Arkansas.

"This new funding from DOE is a boost for our materials science studies at Dartmouth," said Liu, "because it's enhancing research on renewable energy and energy efficiency, and also connecting real world challenges in the next generation of energy harvesting to fundamental materials science. This is a great research opportunity for our students."

Added Hautier, "It's a unique opportunity for Dartmouth to support students and post-docs doing cutting-edge research in problems society is facing today in terms of not only producing energy in a cleaner way, but also using energy more efficiently. And the interesting part is, these are teams that are funded, not only one single lab. So we can bring a lot of different expertise together to solve these problems."

New Photovoltaic Materials

"The idea of photovoltaics is basically using light to produce electricity," said Hautier. When light shines on a photovoltaic material, it generates free electrons—which can then move and form an electric current—and 'holes' where the electrons used to be.

"What limits many materials for this use is that the electrons and the holes want to come back together. And if they do, then you've wasted all the light you put there. So the focus of this project is to find materials, such as phosphides, that will minimize this process of recombining, which is essential to making efficient solar cells.

"I've already started working on the computational aspect of photovoltaics and Jifeng works more on the experimental side and so, of course, we started talking and having ideas about what we can do together."

"My role will mostly be the characterization of the solar materials predicted by theory and synthesized by chemists," said Liu. "Because these are new materials, we have to see not only how well they work, but also how cheaply we can actually make them, which is a big deal for solar materials these days."

"I'm excited to see this award heading to Dartmouth to invest in cutting-edge scientific research around commercial solar technologies. This research will help position the US to transition to a clean energy economy and net zero carbon emissions. Time is of the essence to combat the climate crisis, and New Hampshire continues to lead in innovative clean technologies and solutions."

US Senator Jeanne Shaheen (NH)

Clean Hydrogen Production

Several funded projects involve basic research underpinning DOE's Energy Earthshots Initiatives, which set goals for significant improvements in clean energy technology. One of those is the Hydrogen Shot, which aims to decrease the cost of producing hydrogen.

"Producing hydrogen is critical if you want to store energy, especially clean energy," said Hautier. "Energy from solar panels, for instance, is intermittent. And so, you have to store. Hydrogen production is one way of doing this, and in that process, there is something called a catalyst that is essential. The goal of the CEDARS team is to understand the fundamentals of what is going on at the surface of these catalysts that facilitate water becoming hydrogen and oxygen."

Energy-Efficient Computing

Semiconductor materials, such as silicon, are the backbone of all electronics and optical components in modern society. Liu and the μ-ATOMS team will study what determines the ordering of atoms in semiconductor alloys.

"We want to understand the microscopic structure, how the atoms are being arranged and their preference for their neighbors," said Liu. "By controlling the fundamental atomic ordering, you can change the electrical properties of those materials to be more energy efficient.

"Dartmouth was chosen to participate in this EFRC based on our previous work and expertise in the atomic ordering of complex alloys. So, this is a continuation of that work, but in a different direction to make more energy efficient computing materials. It also directly aligns with the CHIPS Act in the fundamental science aspect."

Engineers in Training

"A big component of this EFRC is training," said Hautier. "Students will be trained not only in solving a specific problem, but also with techniques, with methods, with ways of thinking that will help them solve the next problem. And because you bring in all this expertise, you can train an experimental student to be able to talk with the theorists doing computation and vice-versa. And that's valuable."

"This will be the first EFRC led by an HBCU. This is an opportunity to train the next workforce making sure that the workforce is diverse. This is, I think, an effective way of doing it, by having an ambitious research project and bringing people from all kinds of horizons, and different institutions working together on a problem."

Geoffroy Hautier, Hodgson Family Associate Professor of Engineering

"I think the biggest benefit is that students will learn how to connect a real-world problem to the basic science," says Liu, "to solve the problem from the fundamental science point of view, and then apply it back to the real world. This is an important feedback loop.

"And students will learn how to tackle problems, and not be afraid of them. They can utilize their knowledge and feel capable of taking over this research to an even higher level in the next generation."

Projects were chosen by competitive peer review under two funding opportunities open to universities, National Laboratories, industry, and other research organizations.

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