McGehee makes his solar cells by mixing a titania gel precursor and a special semiconducting polymer, which self-assemble into titania (TiO2) films with polymer-filled pores 20 nm in diameter. Currently, McGehee is still working to improve the efficiency of his solar cells and their resistance to degradation over time in sunlight. "Right now, we're at 2% efficiency, and we want to get to 15%." 15%? That might seem low, but silicon-based cells operate at 12% efficiency, and most importantly, as McGehee points out, "there's a lot of sunlight out there."
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All over campus, Stanford has eagerly embraced the "grand challenges" of nanotechnology. Just this April, the Stanford Nanofabrication Facility (SNF) hosted an open house to celebrate its selection to be part of the National Science Foundation-sponsored National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network sprawling across thirteen universities nationwide. Along with the new Nanocharacterization Laboratory expanding the SNF, the nearly finished Manoharan lab that Stanford students bike past on the way to physics lab embodies the prominent place nanotechnology has in Stanford research for years to come. Specifically, the Manoharan lab is equipped to manipulate matter on an atomic level. Here's a cross-section of nanotechnology research currently being pursued at Stanford:
While sunlight is cheap, harnessing it is currently too expensive to be worthwhile on a large scale. For four years, McGehee and his graduate students have been working to make it cheaper to convert sunlight into electricity. While the silicon-based solar cells currently used generate electricity at $3/Watt, McGehee is aiming for nanostructured solar cells that are ten times cheaper at $.30/Watt. Once fully developed, McGehee's solar cells would be lower cost because the materials are cheaper. Moreover, they would be more lightweight and flexible so that "you could roll them out over rooftops," says McGehee.