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WKU researchers develop low-cost, flexible solar panel

A small-scale, flexible solar panel developed by a WKU chemistry faculty member soon may be powering your cell phone, your laptop or your child’s toy.

WKU researchers have developed a small, flexible solar panel and hope to have the green technology ready for commercialization by the end of 2013. (WKU photo by Clinton Lewis)

WKU researchers have developed a small, flexible solar panel and hope to have the green technology ready for commercialization by the end of 2013. (WKU photo by Clinton Lewis)

Dr. Hemali Rathnayake, assistant professor in WKU’s Department of Chemistry, and her research group (graduate students Venkata Ramana and Stephen Guffey and undergraduate student John Ferguson) have created a prototype of the solar panel and hope to have the latest first generation solar panel in green technology ready for commercialization by the end of 2013.

“My group has been laboriously working on this project the last four years and we’re pretty excited to see the products and materials we’ve designed get into the market,” Dr. Rathnayake said.

WKU is the first school in Kentucky to develop this type of low-cost, flexible organic-based solar technology, she said.

The see-through solar panel is organic and made from novel carbon-based materials by coating on recyclable plastics. The materials were developed in house and large-scale production is possible. These panels are low-cost since coating is done using simple airbrush techniques. The current panel developed replaces a 1.5-volt battery.

The solar cell can be charged by sticking it onto a window to collect energy. “You can just peel and stick on a window,” Dr. Rathnayake said.

Members of Dr. Hemali Rathnayake's research group include (front row, from left) Stephen Guffey, Paige Huzyak, Dr. Rathnayake, Begum Fouzia and (back row) Venkata Ramana, Jonathon Randolph and Dharmesh Patel.

Members of Dr. Hemali Rathnayake’s research group include (front row, from left) Stephen Guffey, Paige Huzyak, Dr. Rathnayake, Begum Fouzia, (back row) Venkata Ramana, Jonathon Randolph and Dharmesh Patel. (WKU photo by Clinton Lewis)

And since the cell is made of recyclable materials, “when you’re through with it, you can recycle it,” she said.

Dr. Cheryl Stevens, dean of WKU’s Ogden College of Science and Engineering, and Dr. Cathleen Webb, head of the Department of Chemistry, said the project is another example of WKU faculty members actively involving students in hands-on research.

“Dr. Rathnayake is an excellent example of a junior faculty member who takes a fantastic idea and uses the University resources available to her to drive her research project forward,” Dr. Stevens said. “Inclusion of students on her project is especially noteworthy because they are immersed in the process of research/application/commercialization. What a terrific learning experience.”

WKU graduate student Stephen Guffey works in the lab. (WKU photo by Clinton Lewis)

WKU graduate student Stephen Guffey works in the lab. (WKU photo by Clinton Lewis)

Dr. Webb agreed. “Dr. Rathnayake’s careful mentoring of her research students epitomizes the ideal of active student engagement in cutting-edge research,” she said. “Her extraordinary accomplishments illustrate the complete cycle of research from conception and hypothesis to final production while also leading to future research opportunities.”

Dr. Rathnayake received a grant from the Kentucky Commercialization Fund to develop the technology and presented a poster about the project with a prototype of 4-inch by 8-inch solar panel recently at the Kentucky Innovation and Entrepreneurship Conference in Lexington.

“The next step for us is scaling up to make 1-foot by 1-foot panels for commercialization. We have set up a small business start-up company called Serendib Solar Plastics and partnered with WKU’s Center for Research and Development and Small Business Accelerator to launch the product,” she said.

Contact: Hemali Rathnayake, (270) 745-6238.

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