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Next-gen energy solutions, from science’s next generation

Alexander Orlov, an associate professor in Stony Brook University’s Materials Science & Chemical Engineering Department, has been thoroughly honored for his groundbreaking work in the development of novel materials for energy generation, structural applications and environmental protection.

Supported by a plethora of state and federal grants (more than $4 million to date, and counting), the fellow of the UK Royal Society of Chemistry and the Kavli Foundation and the multiple U.S. National Academy of Sciences award-winner is a Sigma Xi Distinguished Lecturer and winner of the SUNY Chancellor's Award of Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Activities.

And don’t even get started on the teaching and research awards – more than 20 so far, including a prestigious NAE Frontiers of Engineering Education selection and the 2017 American Chemical Society Award for Incorporating Sustainability into Chemistry Education.

The National Science Foundation grants, the fellowships and the trophy case full of awards are all in Orlov’s name – but like any good team leader, the professor spreads the credit around.

For instance, Orlov champions the AERTC, a “very impressive environment” where much of his research is based. And he sings the praises of the many students passing through his Orlov Materials Laboratory, whom he both mentors and relies on for their own solid science.

“In the Advanced Energy Center, students are provided with space and tools to conduct research, and they have the possibility to collaborate with other researchers,” Orlov notes. “They also get an awareness of the commercial side of scientific research.

“And at the biennial energy conference, they get to see the larger energy ecosystem, interact with many companies and even get the public’s perspective on energy research.”

Among the professor’s brightest protegees are Shrish Patel and Jiajie Cen, both members of the Orlov Materials Laboratory and researchers on some of the lead investigator’s most ambitious projects.


Shrish Patel: Keeping it Clean

Patel, a PhD candidate in the Materials Science & Chemical Engineering Department, is worried about the world.

Specifically, the bright young student senses serious environmental problems stemming from two specific sources: hazardous air pollutants from industrial flue gasses and reduced energy yield from promising solar technologies, due to the soiling of solar panels.

Under Orlov’s wing, Patel shines particularly brightly in the effort to keep solar panels shining. Part of a research team calling itself SolarClear, Patel is knee-deep in a technology that uses electric fields to sweep dust from solar panels – with the long-term goal of a self-cleaning solar panel that both enhances energy efficiency and reduces maintenance costs.

The technology centers around tiny, inexpensive electrodes, which produce electric fields that sweep away the dust. It may sound inconsequential, but dust can reduce solar panel energy output by 10 percent in most settings – and up to 25 percent in deserts, where both dust and panels are plentiful.

That places a particular emphasis on the work of SolarClear, which has been emboldened by a $150,000 PowerBridgeNY grant.

The technology, inspired by NASA systems designed to keep Mars rovers chugging along, has proven effective in laboratory settings. Patel’s current focus is on scaling up for practical applications, with a life-size prototype and field tests coming soon – a giant step toward commercializing a breakthrough tech that can boost solar-panel energy output and eliminate millions of dollars in cleaning costs, according to Orlov. 

“Shrish is making tremendous progress in creating new technology to increase the energy yield from solar panels,” the professor notes. “There are still many challenges to overcome, but he has the right background and creativity to overcome them.”


Jiajie Cen: There’s Gold in Them Thar Nanoparticles

Proficient in nanomaterials, semiconductor fabrication and a host of other next-level sciences, this student – and soon doctor of materials engineering – is not your average PhD candidate.

Instead, Cen is already regarded as a strong research professional and a recognized expert in both semiconductor processes and heterogeneous catalysis – the form of catalysis where the phase of the catalyst differs from that of the reactants (such as gas molecules binding to a liquid surface).

As part of Orlov’s team (and as a visiting researcher at the U.S. Department of Energy’s Brookhaven National Laboratory), the budding scientist has worked extensively on an ultra-high-vacuum chamber with temperatures approaching absolute zero – the ideal place to produce catalytically active gold nanoparticles.

The science, of course, is radical. In a nutshell, gold atoms are boiled down in a vacuum, producing a vapor that’s whisked away by a super-cooled jet stream of liquid helium and smashed against a solid collector. The impact evaporates the liquid helium and releases helium gas – leaving behind pure, stable gold nanoparticles.

Gold nanoparticles are commonly used to connect resistors, conductors and other elements of electronic chips in the ever-shrinking microelectronics universe. To that end, the burgeoning Helium Nanodroplet Deposition project may offer unprecedented solutions for a host of energy and environmental problems.

The promising project was trumpeted in a 2016 paper published by the prestigious Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters – one of 16 journal studies Cen has already contributed to, in addition to papers focused on ratiometric fluorescent probes, photoelectrochemical water splitting and other highly advanced topics.

“Jiajie's creativity and collaborative work with BNL scientists has resulted in 16 high-impact journal papers,” Orlov notes. “That’s a very impressive accomplishment for any PhD student.”

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