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Willmar student takes on theoretical chemistry in quest for better solar panel

Ryan Koehn of Willmar runs calculations on a computer as part of his summer research at the University of Minnesota-Morris that aims to find polymers that can be used in solar panels. Submitted

MORRIS -- Students at the University of Minnesota-Morris are looking to create a better solar panel while they learn about theoretical chemistry.

Students Ryan Koehn of Willmar and Jennifer Schmidt of St. Cloud are conducting theoretical chemistry research this summer along with professors Joe Alia and Ted Pappenfus, according to information from the school.

They are using a computerized method to test the energy levels of polymers. Their hope is to fine a low-cost polymer that is efficient at converting sunlight into electricity.

Solar panels mainly rely on silicon, but the material is heavy and relatively expensive. A lighter, and lower-cost material could make solar panels a more cost-effective energy option.

Theoretical chemistry uses the principles of quantum mechanics, which makes it difficult to test in the laboratory, according to Schmidt. Computers can be used instead to determine which polymers might have the best attributes for the job.

The professors and students don't necessarily expect to invent the world's best solar panel in the way that Thomas Edison found the right filament for light bulbs. They hope their work will help provide information that other researchers can use.

In addition to looking for ways to change the world of renewable energy, the students also gain personal benefits from the UMM research. "I feel like the opportunities to do research here are a great stepping stone for research I'd like to do in the future at graduate school," says Koehn.