A five-year, $725,000 grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration will help South Dakota State University researchers show how new solar cell and battery materials can work in real-world applications, according to Professor Qiquan Qiao. The Harold C. Hohbach Endowed Professor in Electrical Engineering is the director of the Center for Advanced Photovoltaics and Sustainable Energy and coordinator of the electrical engineering graduate program.
“This applied science research grant bridges the gap between basic science research and the final commercialization product,” said Qiao, who has been working on renewable energy generation for 10 years and battery storage technologies for five years. This grant will allow his research group to design, build and test prototype systems to power devices, such as those used to gather field data. Approximately four electrical engineering graduate students will also work on the project.
“In the lab, we make very small samples of thin-film solar cell materials to test their efficiency,” he explained. These materials might convert more of the sun’s energy into electricity, last longer or be less costly to manufacture than those used in existing solar cells.
“However, if you want to show potential investors that the technology works, you need to develop a prototype,” Qiao said. The EDA funding will help bring devices that use renewable energy technologies closer to commercialization and help fuel economic growth in the state.
For example, doctoral student Ahmed El-Magrous has designed and is testing sensor stations that gather data on nine parameters, including relative humidity, soil moisture and temperature, precipitation and even leaf wetness.
El-Magrous worked with Research Associate Jason Sternhagen to design the solar cell based on the amount of electricity the sensors, microcontrollers and data transmission devices needed. In addition, the researchers had to consider how the environment would affect the solar cell’s lifetime and add a rechargeable battery with storage capacity to power the sensors during nighttime and on rainy days.
“The reality in the field may be much different than in the lab,” Qiao said. “We needed to consider practical constraints, such as how often to change the battery. The solar cell may die, so we need a backup.”
The sensors are programmed to collect data at regular intervals and the data is automatically stored in the cloud and can then be accessed through a website El-Magrous designed. This year the researchers gathered data in South Dakota soybean fields near Volga, Eureka, which is northwest of Aberdeen, and Red Rock, northeast of Sioux Falls.
“This is real-time data collection from the field and the agriculture folks are our customers,” Qiao pointed out. Assistant Professor Emmanuel Byamukama and his team in the Department of Agronomy, Horticulture and Plant Science use the data to model when conditions are ripe for a fungal disease called white mold. The researchers hope to develop an app that uses field data to help producers decide when to spray fungicide.
This is just one example of how the economic development grant can open opportunities to commercialize university technologies that help solve real-world problems.