Stanford solar research receives $25 million grant

Michael McGehee

Michael McGehee

Saudi Arabia's new science and technology university has made another large grant to Stanford researchers, this time revolving around solar power.

The $25 million grant from the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology, or KAUST, spans the next five years beginning this month and will fund a new center at Stanford, the Center for Advanced Molecular Photovoltaics.

The center will be directed by Michael McGehee, associate professor of materials science and engineering. The deputy director is Peter Peumans, assistant professor of electrical engineering in the Integrated Circuits Laboratory at the Center for Integrated Systems, who is also affiliated with the Woods Institute for the Environment. Both are intensely involved in designing new types of solar cells at the nanoscale level.

McGehee said that the center's goal is to make solar electricity at a cost that is competitive with coal plants. He seeks to construct organic solar cells that can be cheaply printed in a roll-to-roll coating process similar to newspaper printing. Today's best organic solar cells have an efficiency of 6.5 percent and last approximately one year under sunlight. The center has plans for taking the efficiency to at least 15 percent and making the cells stable for 10 years or more.

"We're doing lots of experiments to see what's holding back the efficiency," McGehee said.

KAUST officials would like to see Saudi Arabia become a leader in solar technology as a way to generate revenue with industries other than oil. "They're looking to diversify their economy," McGehee said. The Saudi goal is to leapfrog into new areas of expertise rather than catch up with existing industries in other countries, he said. The Saudis are not, for example, attempting to create an electronics sector to compete with the entrenched tech economies of the United States and Asia.

"In the long term they're looking for something that will continue to work for them even when the oil supplies diminish," McGehee said. "They're looking to move into new directions. Regardless of where you are in the world, renewable energy is very promising."

The overarching goal of the Saudis' new graduate-level university is to establish a world-class research institution. To that end, Stanford professors are advising KAUST on the hiring of its faculty in applied mathematics and computer science.

KAUST researchers will visit Stanford, and vice versa. McGehee, for instance, will spend a sabbatical on the Saudi campus, probably next year when the new campus on the eastern shore of the Red Sea is scheduled to open.

In another area of cooperation, Yi Cui, assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford who specializes in nanotechnology, is working with KAUST to develop long-lasting lithium-ion batteries based on silicon nanowires. The research could be a boon to laptops, cell phones, portable media players and electric cars. Cui's research group received a $10 million KAUST grant earlier this year.