Green Science – Jonathan Halpert
Story by Veronika Meduna
With demand for solar energy on the rise globally, Jonathan Halpert is well positioned to make an impact.
A lecturer at Victoria University’s School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and an Associate Investigator of the MacDiarmid Institute, Dr Halpert was awarded a Rutherford Discovery Fellowship—which means up to $800,000 over five years— to support his research to develop new materials that make solar panels more efficient, cheaper and ‘greener’.
Earlier this year, Forbes magazine predicted that solar energy was on the road to ‘disruption’—expected to change the electricity generation market worldwide within two decades. At the moment, more than 85 percent of all photovoltaic panels are made from crystalline silicon, which is a very common and non-toxic material, but requires a massive energy input to purify it and achieves less than 20 percent in efficiency in the conversion from sunlight to electrical current.
Dr Halpert’s group focuses on organometal halide perovskites, a group of materials which was first used in solar cells in 2009 and described by Science magazine as one of 10 top breakthroughs in 2013 and “the clean-tech material development to watch right now.” One of the big advantages of these materials is that they can be deposited in solution, using relatively cheap processes such as spray coating or inkjet printing.
“The hope is that if we can print solar cells like newspapers, everyone can afford to put one on their house, their car, their clothes, etc.,” says Dr Halpert. “Silicon is cheaper than it used to be, but it’s fundamentally a technology and a process designed for use in highmargin microprocessors. Thin film alternatives to silicon do exist but tend to use cadmium, which is toxic, or gallium and tellurium, which are rare. With our work we hope to use solution-processed and greener nanomaterials, which means less toxic, less energy intensive and using abundant materials, like copper, tin and iron.”
At the moment, the research team uses perovskites based on lead. “That’s fine for research purposes, but by understanding this material, we hope to then be able to design high-efficiency devices using, say, tin instead.” Dr Halpert says he enjoys being able to work on fundamental questions about the physics of these materials, but with a clear idea of possible applications in mind. “We are obviously excited whenever we discover new physics, in part because that gives us a new handle to approach these technologies. But if I had to say what gets me out of bed in the morning, it’s the idea of taking what we can do in the lab and making it useful to society as a whole. If we can use science to solve a big problem, for example energy, then it proves the importance of doing all that physics in the first place.”
Dr Halpert joined the faculty of the School of Chemical and Physical Sciences and the MacDiarmid Institute last year, with a PhD from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and following postdoctoral research at Cambridge University’s Cavendish Laboratory, where he also focused on solar cells made from new nanomaterials. He says the main attraction for coming to New Zealand was a strong offer of start-up funding for equipment combined with the built-in capability already available at Victoria University and through the MacDiarmid Institute.
“We have a very strong school with a lot of relatively young, ambitious researchers working in theory, spectroscopy, synthesis and device physics and I felt like I would be right at home while still also having the chance to build my own team and create my own research space. Throw in the access here to funding through the Rutherford and Marsden funds, and I don’t think I’d be better able to produce high-impact work at this early stage of my career in either the UK or US.” He foresees a future when nanotechnology will play a major role in shifting technology towards a more sustainable future. “Think of cancer funding over the last 40 years. There is still no one magic bullet, but outcomes today are orders of magnitude better than before due to a sustained research and funding effort. Now we have the issue of energy security and climate change. But we may not have 40 years, so this is an area where science, policy and politics need to sync up and agree if we are to solve the future energy crisis.”