Karen Hinzer is a researcher, not a superhero. She doesn’t have infrared vision. She does, however, have a vision about infrared radiation. And ultraviolet. And other parts of the electromagnetic spectrum that are invisible to the human eye.
She is working to create solar panels that take greater advantage of radiation emanating from the sun, converting not just visible light into electricity, but also those other wavelengths that none of us can see.
Accessing this broader spectrum can greatly improve the efficiency of converting the Sun’s energy into electricity.
Hinzer, associate professor at the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, has been studying this prospect for more than a decade. She is the founder of SUNLab, one of the country’s leading solar technology research facilities.
Along the way she has become a key member of the Photovoltaic Innovation Network, a national collaboration between industry, government and the research community created to make progress in solar power systems.
Even at their best, current solar panels only convert about 20% of the energy that hits them into electricity. Hinzer is developing a design that could double this figure.
Arrays of mirrors and lenses are installed within the panel boost the light intensity to 1,000 times the original sunbeam. Energy from the light hits a device with three layers, each of which absorbs and converts different wavelengths.
To do this, Hinzer and her colleagues are tackling the task with nanoscale-size crystals called “quantum dots” each of which can be tuned for sensitivity to a specific wavelength – including those in non-visible parts of the electromagnetic spectrum.
In addition to creating superpowered solar power, Hinzer also works to ensure that her knowledge and vision are passed to those she mentors, and ultimately into the broader business world where this technology will find root.
“The best knowledge transfer to industry occurs when trained students and researchers leave the SUNLab to join companies,” she says. “These individuals bring with them advanced knowledge on theory, processes, fabrication, testing, supply chain and prospective clients. Some of them will even go on to form their own companies, often complementing an existing industry or increasing the strength of a specific sector.”