St. Kate’s Chemistry research team aims to make renewable energy technology greener

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The study aims to prove that not only can solar energy products become more affordable, they can also be more environmentally sustainable.

In its renewable energy forecast issued this past fall, the International Energy Agency predicts that solar energy capacity worldwide will more than double by 2024. Key to this growth, according to the global group, is increasing affordability of the technologies that make it possible to harness the power of the sun.

A study underway at St. Catherine University wants to make that capacity greener than ever, using plant-based technologies.

Scientists across the planet have made great leaps forward in solar technologies, but “the vast majority of the materials they use — like silicon — are difficult to produce and have significant engineering limitations,” explains St. Catherine University Chemistry professor Daron Janzen. “Organic photovoltaic (OPV) materials are a promising alternative to silicon. While most of these current OPV materials are petroleum-based, they have significant advantages over silicon with potential as a renewable energy technology.”

Janzen is leading a research team at St. Kate’s that is working in partnership with professor Ted Pappenfus at the University of Minnesota Morris to take that concept a step further. The study is funded by a grant from the MN Environmental and Natural Resources Trust Fund. The project, entitled “Sustainable Solar Energy from Agricultural Plant Byproducts,” aims to prove it is possible to create organic solar energy-harvesting materials using furfural, an organic compound produced from corn stover (leaves, stems, and cobs from corn plants).

Janzen and Pappenfus found that furfural functions well as a substitute for otherwise petroleum-based molecules. The study will explore polymers made from furfural to make OPV materials that are more flexible and durable, making the application of solar-harvesting technologies even more diverse. “Think of window coatings, or even smaller things like personal technologies,” says Janzen. 

“This work also supports St. Kate’s Green Chemistry Commitment,” says Janzen. Green chemistry focuses on the design of chemical products and processes that reduce or eliminate the use or generation of hazardous substances. It is based on the principle that it is better to consider waste and hazard prevention options during the design and development phase, rather than disposing, treating and handling waste and hazardous chemicals after a process or material has been developed. St. Kate’s and the University of Minnesota’s Chemistry department are the only two Minnesota universities currently represented in this national organization. “It promotes a standard of practice that perfectly aligns with St. Kate’s values,” said Janzen.

For this study, the team is practicing Green Chemistry by using a new ball mill housed at St. Kate’s. The team uses the mill for chemical reactions involving mechanochemistry, and is a greener method for performing such reactions.

By the time the team makes its final report in 2022, the hope is to prove that not only can solar energy products become more affordable, they can also be more environmentally sustainable. The ultimate success, though, lies in a future where every house in Minnesota would produce renewable energy using plastics made from agricultural byproducts.