UT Energy Institute Features Korgel’s Solar Cell Research

Originally published as an UT Energy Institute Research Spotlight By Gary Rasp.

Professor Brian Korgel in his officeThe way McKetta Department of Chemical Engineering Professor Brian Korgel sees it, imparting knowledge to his students, while vitally important, is only one aspect of his job.

Perhaps even more valuable, Korgel says, is awakening students to the possibilities created for them through what they learn in class or in his research group’s lab.

“Teaching is in everything that I do, but I see my role as more of a mentor,” Korgel says from his sixth-floor office in the Norman Hackerman Building, a space cluttered with textbooks and scientific journals.

“When I think about my own transformations, things that I went through in college and grad school, they had less to do with the knowledge I was learning than understanding what opportunities there were for me,” he explains.

Most of Korgel’s students are able to grasp material covered in his lectures with little trouble. That said, many are in need of some prodding to envision how what they’ve learned may help them in their post-academic careers.

“They underestimate their potential and what opportunities are out there for them,” he notes.

Another thing his students might pick up on is the value of a strong work ethic.

This month, Korgel will finish up an undergraduate course in materials science for chemical engineering students, a class he’ll reprise next fall along with an elective in photovoltaics.

Earlier this summer he taught a course in nanotechnology innovation for UT undergraduates studying abroad at Autonoma University Barcelona.

“I don’t really take many vacations,” he laughs.

Advancing photovoltaic materials

In addition to his teaching duties, Korgel leads the university’s Center for Next Generation Photovoltaics, a research program housed in the Cockrell School of Engineering.

As the Center’s founder and director, Korgel is immersed in what has become the principal pursuit of his academic career: conducting fundamental, pre-competitive research aimed at making photovoltaic electricity a major source of energy throughout the U.S. and the world.

The Center, which includes researchers from Colorado State University and, more recently, Texas A&M, is part of the National Science Foundation’s Industry/University Cooperative Research Center (I/UCRC) program.

By leveraging its research capabilities, the Center works with industry partners to develop advanced PV materials and devices for electricity generation. Central to its approach is promoting new strategies for companies participating in the PV market, Korgel says.

The road to bringing the Center to fruition has been a long one, Korgel muses, but it has been well worth the effort. The organization – the only one of the NSF’s 61 research groups dedicated to next generation PVs – now boasts more than 20 industrial members.

Six years after its formation, Korgel has overseen significant movement toward the Center’s goal of producing a new generation of thin-film solar cells that are “at the efficiency level of polycrystalline silicon, if not better, and can even exceed single crystal silicon at significantly lower manufacturing cost.”

These and other technological advances – along with exponential growth in utility-scale solar projects – have signaled a sea change in the solar energy industry, Korgel says.

“There are now instances of PV electricity being the lowest cost electricity available—even cheaper than coal and natural gas—and the prices continue to drop as the technology continues to get better and better.”

The Center also has begun a new program called “PVs for EVs” that conjoins academics with industry partners interested in advancing the development of electric car batteries as energy storage devices capable of sending power back to the grid.

The desire to wean society off of liquid fuels for transportation with cheap energy from the sun represents “the perfect intersection of interests,” he says.

The group also has initiated a program at the food-energy-water nexus, aimed at using inexpensive photovoltaic energy to produce food and potable water.

“This is a really exciting time for the Center,” Korgel says. “Our membership is growing; we’re involving companies who’ve never considered the use of photovoltaic energy before and are seeing that it can have a transformative impact on their business.”

A long and winding road

Korgel’s own path has been a circuitous one, though his lifelong love of numbers began at an early age.

His father, an electrical engineer, encouraged his son to study math before he even began school; by the time Korgel entered kindergarten, he was already acquainted with algebraic equations.

(He also showed an aptitude for writing, crafting a series of one-act plays while still in elementary school. This knack for writing resurfaced later, while in graduate school, when Korgel edited one of UCLA’s poetry journals. He also sang and played bass in a grunge rock band, further quelling perceptions of himself as strictly a left-brainer.)

Korgel continued to excel in school after his family moved from Denver to San Diego when he was 10. He served as Poway High School’s valedictorian in his 1987 graduating class.

When it came time for college, Korgel wasn’t sure what course of study to pursue. As a freshman at UCLA, recalling his interest in high school chemistry, he thought he might want a career as a doctor.

“I ended up choosing bioengineering, just because I thought it sounded interesting,” he recalls.

When he showed up to register for classes that first semester, however, school officials informed him that bioengineering was no longer offered as a major and had been absorbed into the chemical engineering program.

“I kind of became a chemical engineer by default,” he chortles.

One summer, a professor offered Korgel the opportunity to conduct research in a lab, a pivotal experience that “transformed me,” he says.

“I really enjoyed research. And I discovered I was good at it.”

That first brush work with laboratory research – growing Zymomonas mobilis bacteria in gels and exploring the diffusion of sugar molecules – kindled an interest in biotechnology.

Korgel particularly enjoyed his studies of molecular biology and biochemistry, and saw firsthand what chemical engineers did during a tour of a local biotechnology lab.

“By the time I finished as an undergrad at UCLA I wasn’t interested in medical school anymore … I decided I wanted to start a biotech company,” he says.

From biotech to nanotechnology

Figuring he would need a Ph.D. to attain that dream, Korgel went back to UCLA for his Ph.D., but his focus changed yet again.

“One day, my Ph.D. advisor asked me, ‘Brian, have you ever heard of quantum dots?’”

He hadn’t. But soon enough, he was immersed in the study of using biological molecules to produce new nanomaterials, like quantum dots.

“That question literally changed my career path,” he notes.

To supplement his newfound interest in nanotechnology and materials science Korgel took classes in solid state chemistry and inorganic chemistry, paving the way for a thesis on nanocrystals.

“I was really interested in the inorganic stuff,” he says.

Within days of earning his Ph.D., Korgel had begun his post-doc work in University College Dublin’s chemistry department. His work there cemented what had emerged as his true calling – the study of nanotechnology.

Two years later, he began looking for a job as a university professor. But since few engineers were working in “this weird nanotechnology area,” Korgel was concerned it might be difficult to find a job.

He found one at UT Austin, arriving on campus in the summer of 1998.

“UT took a little bit of a risk in hiring me because I was in a brand new field,” he says. “As it turns out, nanotechnology is a pretty important area.”

Go here to learn more about Prof. Korgel’s research and view a list of publications. Author Gary Rasp is communications director at the Energy Institute.

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