The Nanotechnology & Integrated Bio-Engineering Centre (NIBEC) at Ulster’s Jordanstown campus secured almost £700,000 from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) for the research project which could herald a new era for solar energy harvesting by using low cost, non-degradable, non-toxic, environmentally-friendly materials.
Principal investigator Dr Davide Mariotti, is leader of NIBEC's Plasma Science & Nanoscale Engineering research group and is based in the Engineering Research Institute at Jordanstown. Ulster's research teamincludes plasmas and nanofabrication specialist, Professor Paul Maguire, also from NIBEC.
Ulster’s research proposal was ranked first out of the 21 from across the UK submitted to the EPSRCfor photovoltaic (solar energy) research funding.The three year project will be conducted in collaboration with the University of St Andrew’s in Scotland. The research team will also have access to the expertise of global leaders in materials and photovoltaics.
Dr Mariotti explained: "Current solar cell technologies are still relatively expensive with limited efficiencies. The proposed project will bring together advanced and novel materials with unique properties that can overcome these limitations.
"The exploration and development of photovoltaic or solar technology would be a major breakthrough for photovoltaics, for the national energy strategy and could provide a headstart for the UK’s emerging solar energy industry.”
Dr Mariotti continued: "The deployment of next generation, low-cost and high-efficiency solar cells is a multi-faceted challenge requiring a multi-disciplinary effort.“Our aim is to open up novel and transformative approaches based on nanotechnology which also rely on advanced plasma processing,” he said.
Nanotechnology allows scientists to leverage the unique physical chemical properties of materials that exist only at a nanoscale or smallest level - a nanometer is one-billionth of a meter.
Their research project: ‘All Inorganic Bulk Heterojunction Solar Cell Devices’ will bring together novel elements from chemistry, nanotechnology, materials and plasmas, and device engineering.
The team will investigate the use of low cost, non-degradable, non-toxic, abundant and environmentally-friendly materials, as well as low cost and scalable fabrication strategies.
Dr Mariotti said that what makes this project so unique is the way it combines his previous research with scientists from AIST, Japan (National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology) with the expertise of colleagues from the University of St. Andrew’s and their work into novel metal-oxides.
The collaborative work between Dr Mariotti and Dr Vladimir Svrcek (AIST, Japan) was initially carried out at theMicroelectronic Engineering Department of the Rochester Institute of Technology (US), where Dr Mariotti served as an Assistant Professor under a US National Science Foundation grant.
"The two types of material combined together are symbiotically overcoming many of the limitations of current photovoltaic technologies.
"Boosting efficiency and lowering costs can only be achieved with a full-span vision of all device-related aspects of solar technology," he said.
Plasma science and engineering which areat the core of this project,play a fundamental role in many of today’s technologies and are essential to a wide range of manufacturing processes beyond photovoltaics, such as the microelectronic, car and aerospace industries which are of particular relevance to the Northern Ireland economy.
The EPSRC funding is the latest in a series of research grants secured by Dr Mariotti in recent months. In December 2013, he was awarded a prestigious Leverhulme grant to support his international collaborative research on photovoltaic research.
In March this year, ProfessorMaguire and Dr Mariotti secured another major EPSRC grant to fund their plasma technologies research to explore the possibility of developing a portable, compact device that could immediately diagnose pathogens such as hospital superbugs.
Dr Mariotti said the continuous support from funding bodies like the EPSRC and the Leverhulme Trust confirms that the University of Ulster has a world-leading and unique group of experts in Plasma technologies.
Materials Engineering research at the University of Ulster went up from 17th to 11thin the UK national league table for research excellence at the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in 2008.In Ulster’s submission, the Assessment Panel – which also looked at scientific discovery and engineering innovation at some of the strongest academic institutions in the UK found strong evidence of world class research, supported by internationally leading research with 95% of the staff are judged to be of international standing.
Director of the Engineering Research Institute, Professor Jim McLaughlin said: "This award from the EPSRC is a reflection of the historic and strong tradition of engineering and the applied sciences at Jordanstown.
"In particular, it is a reflection of the international status of our fast growing research capability with our Engineering Research Institute and the underpinning teaching of the School of Engineering.
"There will be many benefits to our wider research strands within the Institute associated with Connected Health, Clean Technology, Aerospace Materials, Nanotechnology and Biomaterials,” he said.
Caption: Dr Davide Mariotti