Solar Gain

Alex Chang
More electricity from sunlight is the goal for Alex Chang, right, and his thin-films student research team of (left to right) Nate Edwards, Debra Gilbuena and Wei Wang. (Photo: Karl Maasdam)

Since coming to Oregon State University a decade ago, Chih-hung “Alex” Chang has made research his passion as well as his profession. The associate professor in chemical engineering has two patents and six more pending. With other OSU faculty and students, he has helped to create two companies, Nanobits LLC and CSD Nano LLC. His work on what scientists call thin films — nanometer scale chemical layers laid down with drill-team precision — holds the promise of new coatings for eyeglasses and a new generation of power producing solar cells.

In 2004, the National Science Foundation recognized Chang with a prestigious Early Career Award. He has received additional NSF research grants and support from the Department of Energy, Sharp Laboratories of America, ONAMI and Oregon BEST.

OSU’s University Venture Development Fund has also been critical to his research. The fund supports technology with commercial potential while providing a hefty Oregon tax credit to donors. It delivers a direct shot in the arm for research leading to new products.

Alex Chang’s dad was an engineer, but Alex nearly took another direction as an undergraduate at the National Taiwan University. He considered becoming an artist.
In fact, art runs in the family. His brother Chih-wei followed in their father’s footsteps with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, but he decided not to continue that career. After graduating, he moved to New York City and studied fashion illustration.

For Alex, research held stronger appeal. At the University of Florida, he studied an emerging alternative to silicon for photovoltaic cells known as CIGS thin films. He collaborated with fellow graduate student B.J. Stanbery, a CIGS photovoltaics pioneer who recently founded a new company, HelioVolt.

At OSU, Chang and a student research team envision electricity generating solar collectors built into windows, roofs and other building parts. Debra Gilbuena, a double master’s student in business and chemical engineering, puts it this way: “How cool would it be if you could put solar cells on all the windows in all the skyscrapers in a city and collect energy?” Gilbuena, who co-holds a patent for an electrochemical sensor, works in Chang’s lab and serves as a chief technology officer for CSD Nano.

Thin-film solar cells — whether made of silicon or the CIGS metals copper, indium, gallium and selenium — typically consist of six or more layers to maximize light absorption and sustain an electric current, says Chang. His team is developing printing techniques to replace more expensive vacuum production methods. Chang has already used an inkjet printing-based process to make high-mobility thin-film transistors.

With new techniques, Chang’s goal is to lower cost and chemical use while maintaining high efficiency. Based on a market analysis by Gilbuena, Chang expects demand to be high. “We need to demonstrate good efficiency. There’s no doubt there will be commercial interest,” he says.

For more about energy research by Chang and other OSU scientists and engineers, see Expanding Our Energy Portfolio in the 2008 president’s report.

To support energy research at OSU, contact the Oregon State University Foundation.