Feature: Clean Energy
From Molecules to Miles
The new Clean Energy Institute wants to revolutionize our energy system at every scale.
By Jennifer Langston
To Alex Jen, Seattle's skyline represents a missed opportunity on a massive scale. The windows used in high-rises typically reflect up to 70 percent of sunlight that can make offices hot or fade carpets.
Jen, chief scientist for the University of Washington's Clean Energy Institute, and other researchers have been pioneering molecular innovations that could turn windows—along with roofs and other building materials—into large scale canvasses for collecting wasted sunlight and converting it to electricity.
The CEI, launched late last year with support from the state of Washington, has several key foci: improved solar technologies; energy storage devices; and hardware and software to integrate clean energy with the electric grid.
The first research strength cuts across multiple departments and spans different solar cell technologies, from organic polymers to perovskite hybrid cells to inorganic nanoparticles. The common innovation is that all start out as "inks" that can be printed on flexible plastic like cling wrap and used to coat a variety of surfaces.
"With solar power, you always think about the very bulky, very heavy silicon panels on your roof. But the next revolution is to make solar cells by printing, like you print a newspaper," said Jen, the Boeing-Johnson Chair of Materials Science & Engineering. "You can make it in large volumes and at low cost and you can make it flexible and portable so you can use it anywhere you want."
To meet state and worldwide goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, clean energy technologies must become ubiquitous. That won't happen until they become more efficient, reliable, and cost-competitive than polluting fossil fuels.
The Washington State Legislature, with strong support from Governor Jay Inslee, approved a $6 million, two-year appropriation to launch the CEI and bring new clean energy technologies to scale. Those state funds have already catalyzed an additional doubling of research support from federal and philanthropic organizations.
The CEI builds on the state's existing strengths in photovoltaics, solar inks, and "smart grid" technology at the UW and other collaborating institutions such as the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory. The new influx of state, federal, and private funds is fast transforming the campus' ability to move the needle in clean energy. Funds will support new instruments that will be shared among campus researchers, processing facilities to begin scaling up and manufacturing printable solar technologies, 26 new student fellows in the sciences and engineering, a planned postdoctoral fellowship program, support staff to enhance productivity, and a faculty cluster hiring campaign.
Rethinking our energy system requires work on wildly different scales, from molecules that can capture and store energy to miles of distribution lines that deliver it. That's why the CEI is organized around two research thrusts—Advanced Materials for Energy and Energy Systems and Integration.
The goal? To build a dream team of interdisciplinary researchers and devise solutions that fit together across our entire energy system.
The sun doesn't shine at night when everyone comes home from work; the wind doesn't always blow when people want heat. That's why new technologies are necessary to store and effectively distribute clean energy.
Dan Schwartz, CEI Director
"Advances in materials only get you part of the way to a solution for society," said Daniel Schwartz, director of the CEI and the Boeing-Sutter Professor of Chemical Engineering. "The other part is how do you get the electronics that you make in a solar cell onto the grid and use them when the sun goes down and make it as reliable as we expect when we flick a switch?"
Today's electric grid was built around dirty fossil fuel plants that could be turned on and off or ramped up and down to follow energy demand. Renewable energy doesn't work that way—the sun doesn't shine at night when everyone comes home from work, and the wind doesn't always blow on cold days when people want heat. That's why new technologies are necessary to store and effectively distribute clean energy.
To address that problem, CEI researchers such as Guozhong Cao, the Boeing-Steiner Professor of Materials Science & Engineering, are new ideas and moving research out of the lab, have already begun to pay off. One CEI graduate fellow working with Hugh Hillhouse, Rehnberg Chair of Chemical Engineering, hit upon a plausible strategy for combining hybrid perovskite and inorganic solar ink technologies. If the idea proves out, it could catapult the efficiency of printable solar cells past 30 percent, crushing the 12 percent to 20 percent efficiencies of photovoltaics on the market today.
State funding will also seed critical investments in processing facilities to begin producing solar and battery ink technologies on a more commercial scale.
CEI Advisory Council member Denis Hayes recently oversaw the construction of what is widely considered one of the world's greenest buildings. As president of the Bullitt Foundation, he sees plenty of room for leapfrog technologies to revolutionize the energy sphere in the same way that mobile phones fundamentally changed the way we communicate.
"Some of these exist now at the size of a fingernail, but we need them to be the size of a whole building," Hayes said. "With this state investment in the CEI, we are adding to the intellectual capacity of some very smart people to figure that out."