Carsten Milsmann, assistant professor in the C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry at West Virginia University, has earned the National Science Foundation’s prestigious CAREER Award for research that could help develop solar energy applications that are more efficient and cheaper to produce.
“In general, we are interested in so-called photosensitizers because these molecules can absorb light and convert it into chemical energy,” Milsmann said.
Milsmann, alongside five WVU graduate students, hopes to develop new compounds using early transition metals. These are more widely available and cost effective than the precious metals typically used in new solar cell technology, which has been held back by these pricy materials. Iridium and ruthenium, for example, are far more expensive and rarer than platinum.
“Chemists typically make photoactive molecules based on late transition metals, which are pricey and rare,” Milsmann said. “When tackling solar energy conversion on a global scale, you don’t want to do it with something that you don’t have very much of and that is expensive.”
However, there are significant obstacles to replacing the precious metals in solar cells with more widely available (or “earth-abundant”) elements, related to their unique chemical properties and their location on the periodic table.
“I think solar energy researchers have focused a lot on late transition metals because we understand their optical properties and reactivity very well, and this understanding makes it easier to modify them,” Milsmann said. “Because of the different chemical properties of early transition metals, we had to start thinking about how to achieve similar outcomes using alternative approaches.”
From this research Milsmann anticipates working in the field of artificial photosynthesis, which he describes as harvesting sunlight and transforming it into fuel.
“To me the only real abundant energy source that we have that is renewable is the sun,” Milsmann said. “Fossil fuels are essentially sunlight that has been stored over millions of years via photosynthesis. I would like to be able to do the same thing as a chemist—harness and store the sun’s energy.”
The NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, Award recognizes promising and talented early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education. The award comes with nearly $650,000 in funding over a five-year period.
“The Milsmann lab is doing important fundamental research on cheap and abundant early
transition metals, the chemistry of which is poorly understood,” said Gregory Dudley,
chair of the Bennett Department of Chemistry at WVU. “His work contributes basic
knowledge to our field, adds value to cheap raw materials and has the potential
to make solar energy cheaper and more abundant. We are pleased that the National
Science Foundation has seen fit to support him in these efforts.”