Energy the Way Nature Intended It?

Government Mar 15, 2011

Wei Zhan takes a fresh look at solar power

In 2008, gas prices spiked. You might have noticed.  That all-time high of $4.11 per gallon sent chemists scrambling to find an alternative to the fuel that was emptying out our wallets.  Since then, we’ve seen a lot of alternative energy concepts, but nothing’s really become dominant. Solar looks great — effective, clean — except just like gas in 2008, it’s really, really expensive.

Installing traditional solar panels might currently run you about $50,000 for a large house, and although that investment could save you money in the long run, most people don’t have that kind of money sitting around.

So when Auburn’s Dr. Wei Zhan got thinking about the spike and solar energy, he started looking at the inefficiencies in traditional silicon solar panels. He realized that to make solar energy really workable, we should look to the system that does it right. There are things out there that use solar energy all the time but don’t spend any money on it at all. No, they’re not your next-door neighbors stealing your electricity again. They’re called “plants.”

As Dr. Zhan says, “We’re interested in learning from mother Nature, who’s done light energy harvesting and conversion for very long and very well.”

Dr. Zhan and his group are looking at the ways that Nature, “with tremendous success” organizes special molecules into cell membranes to capture and store solar energy.  His efforts have garnered him the attention of the National Science Foundation, who awarded him the prestigious Early Career Development grant to pursue his work.

He’s not focusing on building practical devices yet, so don’t expect to grow your own solar panels any time soon, but his work is expected to establish the groundwork for a new, literally green, field of study.

Principal Investigator

Dr. Wei Zhan

The Zhan research group has broad research interests in solar energy conversion, bioanalytical chemistry and materials chemistry. Categorized as such, however, our projects are often found more exciting when we can disregard the boundaries or depart our comfort zone for at least a while. Of course, efforts have been consistently made to turn the items in the comfort zone into our expertise, which include electrochemistry, luminescence (spectroscopy and imaging) and microfabrication.

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