Last week, President Obama recognized Dr. Rakesh Agrawal with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation -- the nation's highest honor for advancing science and technology.
Among five honored with this year’s award, Rakesh Agrawal received the prize in recognition of his breakthroughs in gas separation and liquefaction. Very pure oxygen, nitrogen and other gases are important for the high-quality silicon wafers used in computer processors and cellular telephones. Along the way to filing more than 100 U.S. patents and almost 500 international ones, Agrawal invented a simple and inexpensive gas purification technology used every day by electronics industry giants like Intel and Motorola. He also developed a more efficient and cost-effective method for liquefying natural gas.
Perhaps even more exciting than Dr. Agrawal's list of esteemed accomplishments, though, is the promise of his current research.
Dr. Agrawal was recently selected for a SunShot award to develop next-generation solar inks, which use common materials -- copper, zinc, tin, and sulfur -- to lower the cost of photovoltaic (PV) solar cells.
Copper Zinc Tin Sulfide (CZTS), a next-generation PV semiconductor ink, offers the potential to sidestep the material scarcity issues present in other semiconductors. CZTS is similar to copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS), the thin-film inorganic material that is grown on glass substrates for high-efficiency PV modules. The materials are so similar, in fact, that many of the manufacturing processes, instruments, and supply chain features of CIGS can be used for CZTS. Though at present CIGS thin film is better at capturing sunlight, CZTS offers the advantage of using components that are less expensive and more abundant than rare earth materials used for CIGS and other semiconductor technologies. Sustainable materials like CZTS provide the opportunity to help lower the cost and environmental impact of manufacturing thin-film cells while making the United States more energy independent.
The Energy Department is engaging the nation's top scientists, engineers, and innovators, people like Rakesh Agrawal, to help us meet our energy challenges. With their help, we will develop new technologies that will help us innovate our way to a sustainable, clean energy future.