Alternative energy research projects involving four faculty members from the University of Pennsylvania have been awarded grants from the Energy Commercialization Institute,a translational-research partnership that draws upon several regional universities.

Penn, along with Drexel University and Penn State University, founded the Energy Commercialization Institute in 2009 with support from Ben Franklin Technology Partners of Southeastern Pennsylvania. Researchers from the three universities, as well as fellow partners Temple University, Villanova University and Widener University, are eligible for grants through ECI’s Energy Translational Research Fund, which include up to $150,000 worth of funding to multi-institutional projects.

Five projects received a total of $500,000 in the latest round of funding, with Penn faculty participating in three of them.

Andrew Rappe, professor of chemistry in Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences and co-director of its alternative-energy research group, Pennergy, is leading a project on solar cells that was awarded $115,000. Along with Peter Davies, chair of thMaterials Science & Engineering Department at Penn’s School of Engineering and Applied Science, and Jonathan Spanier of Drexel, they are exploring thin-film ferroelectric semiconductors as a way to make solar cells more efficient, as well as easier and cheaper to produce.

Another Penn-led project is also looking at improving solar cells but from a much different angle. Shu Yang, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, was awarded $60,000 to research a new way to keep solar panels clean. When harvesting solar energy, every square inch of sunlight counts, so something as commonplace as bird droppings can seriously dampen efficiency. Yang’s group is looking at experimental transparent coatings that would prevent an opaque mess from sticking to solar panels; the coatings could have a variety of other applications.

Haim Bau, a professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics, is a partner in a Drexel-led project, which was awarded $150,000. With Emin Caglan Kumbar, Yuri Gogotsi and Volker Pressor, he will build a prototype “electrochemical flow capacitor,” a new kind of energy-storage technology that would outclass current supercapacitors. Renewable energy sources, like solar or wind, are limited by the fact that they don’t constantly produce power. To meet current energy needs, they need to be paired with systems that can store that power and a “smart grid” that can distribute it to where it’s needed.

With a rapidly growing market in alternative energy technology, moving research out of labs and into the field is a high priority.

“These projects were selected because of their high degree of potential success in commercialization,” ECI’s director, Anthony P. Green, said.  “They will help keep Southeastern Pennsylvania at the forefront of the alternative-energy arena.”