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Allam Awarded for Novel, Cheap Materials in Solar Energy Conversion

September 14, 2014

Nageh Allam, assistant professor of physics, received the 2013 Best Publication Award from the National Research Center (NRC) for his innovative research on how nanotechnology can be used to convert solar energy to fuel or electricity, specifically the development of materials to replace the expensive silicon in sustainable industries.

"The award was given for my team's efforts in discovering and designing cheap, very stable and photoactive materials from earth-abundant elements for solar energy conversion,” said Allam, who received the NRC award for his article titled “Layered Tantalum Oxynitride Nanarod Array Carpets for Efficient Photoelectrochemical Conversion of Solar Energy: Experimental and DFT Insights,” published in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces.

The problem, Allam explained, is the lack of cheap and abundant materials to replace silicon –– the most commonly used material in the manufacture of solar panels. “The main issues with silicon are that it is still expensive and hard to make” said Allam. Most materials that produce the same effects as silicon are quickly depleted within the coming few years.

The process of converting sand to silicon is also expensive. “You get the sand then you need many, many sophisticated processes to treat the sand,” explained Allam. “And you have to work in a clean room; otherwise it will get oxidized again.”

In addition, should silicon be exposed to heat or moisture, the properties of the element can be destroyed. “Because solar panels are designed for U.S. environments where you don’t have the accumulation of dust that we have here, they are not directly applicable to Middle Eastern climates,” said Allam, adding that during high winds, sand particles can scratch the protective surfaces of solar panels, exposing the silicon to weather elements that render the element useless. The protective material used in silicon solar panels is also easily scratched when cleaned mechanically. “Silicon is a good material, but has a lot of problems,” he noted.

To combat these problems, Allam and his research team developed materials that perform the same functions as silicon, but are abundant, stable and cheap to manufacture. “The beauty of our material is that it is self-cleaning and self-healing,” said Allam, who employs polymers for these self-cleaning and self-healing effects.

In order to adapt to differences in resource availability between Egypt and the United States, Allam's methods of research were computational in comparison to the common trial-and-error method. Because importing chemicals from the United States is both costly and time consuming, Allam’s work demanded high computational resources and simulation in his hunt for material. “We do some calculations, which can tell us from the beginning whether or not mixing these two materials together would work. We screen, say, 100 materials from the calculations we find promising. Then we go to the lab, combine the materials and hopefully they will work.”

Allam emphasized the value of undergraduate research in the Energy Materials Laboratory at AUC. “Providing research opportunities to undergraduate students ensures their competitiveness in higher education institutions,” said Allam, highlighting the efforts of graduate students Basamat Shaheen and Ramy Nashed, who have worked with him for the past three years and were invaluable to the success of his publication.

Hailing originally from Cairo, Allam received his PhD in materials engineering from Pennsylvania State University before completing his postdoctoral research at the Laser Dynamics Laboratory in the Georgia Institute of Technology. He then worked as a research scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Following his time at MIT, Allam returned to Cairo to teach and conduct research at AUC. After being awarded startup funding from the University, Allam established the Energy Materials Laboratory, where his research group is based.