The CSM campus is teeming with ongoing research projects all year round. On Wednesday afternoon I was able to delve into the Chemical Engineering department to meet with Dr. Sumit Agarwal, an assistant professor at the Chemical Engineering department who is currently researching the processing of both solar and electronic materials.
Agarwal’s research focuses on the development of a new solar energy conversion material composed of silicon nanoparticles and also the processing of metal oxides for enhanced performance in electronic devices. The research of silicon nanoparticles is mainly applied to photovoltaics, which is the conversion of solar energy into electricity. Silicon nanoparticles, about 3-5 nanometers in diameter, are able to extract more energy out of the light it is exposed to compared to the traditional materials used for solar panels. “You can use quantum effects in these small nanoparticles to make more efficient [photovoltaic] devices,” explained Agarwal. These nanoparticles “utilize certain quantum effects [so that] the energy you’re losing as heat can be converted into useful electricity.” The successful implementation of these nanoparticles would improve upon the relatively low 29% efficiency of commonly used silicon chip solar panels.
And Agarwal is helping to develop certain techniques to synthesize these nanoparticles as well. Specifically, he studies vapor deposition. This process involves a gas containing the element intended to be the building block of the material being synthesized. This gas is then broken down into simpler and more reactive particles within an electromagnetic field and set to react with a surface under specific circumstances, thus depositing a thin layer of the element.
But, while Agarwal collaborates with many other scientists in the progress of silicon nanoparticles, he also devotes a large portion of his time to the development of certain metal oxides that can be used to improve efficiency within photovoltaics as well as microelectronics. Focusing mainly on the metal oxides titanium dioxide, aluminum oxide, and silicon dioxide, he studies certain properties that can be very useful in photovoltaics or microelectronics. For example, Agarwal described to me that titanium dioxide “has potential applications in photoelectrolysis, which is the breaking down of water into oxygen and hydrogen using sunlight. Then that hydrogen can be stored and used as fuel.” This property of titanium dioxide may facilitate the growth of fuel cells as a legitimate alternative source of energy. As for aluminum dioxide, it typically acts as a water permeation barrier and is used to protect certain components in electronic devices that are highly sensitive to water. Previously, these components could not be used due to the constrictions placed on the equipment by the necessity of a thick and brittle water permeation barrier. However, this area of research is enabling the production of flexible water permeation barriers using alternating layers of a polymer and aluminum oxide. Developments such as these are encouraging the use of more efficient electronic components.
The sharing and publication of recent developments is a vital part of any productive research facility. This is true of Agarwal’s team as well. “That’s a big part of our effort, to have a close collaboration.” His close collaborations include the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), based in Golden, the Renewable Energy Materials Research Science and Engineering Center (REMRSEC), and Colorado Renewable Energy Collaboratory.
Although impossible to fully depict the depth of Agarwal’s research in a single article, the interview I had with him made me realize the immensity of the academic activity that occurs on the Colorado School of Mines campus. Students often barely even scratch the surface in understanding the sheer amount of research that takes place here. It should be very encouraging to know that our school is truly a nationally renowned epicenter of intellectual achievement.