$1.5M NSF Grant to Explore Nanoparticle Mass-Scale Manufacturing

Cornell Chronicle  September 9, 2013

NANOSPHERESMaking large quantities of reliable, inexpensive nanoparticles for batteries, solar cells, catalysts and other energy applications has proven challenging due to manufacturing limits. A Cornell research team is working to improve such processes with a $1.5 million National Science Foundation (NSF) grant to support scalable nanomanufacturing and device integration.

Richard Robinson, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and Tobias Hanrath, associate professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering, have been awarded a four-year Nanoscale Interdisciplinary Research Team grant through the NSF’s Scalable Nanomanufacturing Program.

Their goal is to improve large-scale, solution-phase synthesis of high-quality nanoparticles – in particular metal sulfides – and demonstrate their integration into devices including battery electrodes and solar photovoltaics.

As Robinson explains, “the properties of colloidal quantum dots can be tuned by changing their size and composition, and the field has really come a long way over the years to learn how to tailor those properties to be ideal for energy applications. We’re really on the forefront of this technology. The problem is that there hasn’t been a way to make a massive amount of particles that are all exactly the same size and composition.  Scalable methods to manufacture nanoparticles could really change the landscape.”

The key to their project will be the use of a reactive precursor that had previously only been limited to aqueous-phase synthesis of nanomaterials. Their method could potentially benefit the application of semiconductors and semi-metal colloidal nanocrystals by providing a nontoxic alternative to metal chalcogenide systems, including the widely used semiconductor cadmium selenide.

Hanrath, co-principal investigator, analogized the research goals with the development of polymers and plastics 50 years ago. Transforming polymers from a bench-scale scientific discovery to a multibillion dollar industry involved “several interesting chemical engineering challenges,” Hanrath noted.

“We’re excited about the prospect of applying similar concepts to develop methods for the scalable production of high-quality nanoparticles to enable the deployment and commercialization of emerging nanotechnologies,” Hanrath said.

The grant, which runs through 2017, also covers outreach and education activities, including an NSF-sponsored K-12 education program to work with high school teachers for enhancing nanoscience curricula.


New Nanoparticles to make Solar Cells Cheaper to Manufacture

072613solarUniv. of Alberta researchers have found that abundant materials in the Earth’s crust can be used to make inexpensive and easily manufactured nanoparticle-based solar cells.

The U of A discovery, several years in the making, is an important step forward in making solar power more accessible to parts of the world that are off the traditional electricity grid or face high power costs, such as the Canadian North, said researcher Jillian Buriak, a chemistry professor and senior research officer of the National Institute for Nanotechnology, based on the U of A campus.

Buriak and her team have designed nanoparticles that absorb light and conduct electricity from two very common elements: phosphorus and zinc. Both materials are more plentiful than scarce materials such as cadmium and free from manufacturing restrictions imposed on lead-based nanoparticles.

“Half the world already lives off the grid, and with demand for electrical power expected to double by the year 2050, it is important that renewable energy sources like solar power are made more affordable by lowering the costs of manufacturing,” Buriak said.

Her team’s research supports a promising approach of making solar cells cheaply using mass manufacturing methods like roll-to-roll printing (as with newspaper presses) or spray-coating (similar to automotive painting). “Nanoparticle-based ‘inks’ could be used to literally paint or print solar cells or precise compositions,” Buriak said.

The team was able to develop a synthetic method to make zinc phosphide nanoparticles and demonstrated that the particles can be dissolved to form an ink and processed to make thin films that are responsive to light.

Buriak and her team are now experimenting with the nanoparticles, spray-coating them onto large solar cells to test their efficiency. The team has applied for a provisional patent and has secured funding to enable the next step to scale-up manufacture.

The research, which was supported by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, is published in the latest issue of ACS Nano.