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Release: Nov. 8, 2001

UI researcher receives grant to study semiconductor materials

IOWA CITY, Iowa –- University of Iowa researcher Thomas Boggess has received a two-year, $152,000 grant from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Lincoln Laboratories to study materials useful in converting heat to electricity.

Boggess, professor and chair of the department of physics and astronomy in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and professor in the department of electrical and computer engineering in the College of Engineering, will study semiconductor materials used in devices for electrical power generation. He says that although solar cell technology is a well-known means for directly converting visible light from the sun into electricity, a newer -- and potentially more important, technology -- has been developed for obtaining electrical power from the invisible, infrared light emitted by hot objects here on Earth.

"Breakthroughs in semiconductor growth technology have resulted in new semiconductors designed to absorb the infrared light emitted by objects heated to a temperature of approximately 1100 degrees Celsius. These semiconductors form the basis for devices known as thermophotovoltaic (TPV) cells," he says. "TPV devices provide the opportunity for quietly and efficiently generating electricity directly, for example, from waste industrial heat or from a simple propane burner. Some people envision one day replacing the internal combustion engine with such devices, although using TPV cells to supplement engines in hybrid cars is perhaps a more realistic goal."

Although significant progress has been made in developing TPV technology, improved cost effectiveness and practicality depend upon improving the efficiency of the electrical conversion process. This process, in turn, is intimately related to enhancements in the quality of the semiconductors used in the TPV cells. Boggess plans to use short bursts of laser light to measure semiconductor properties that are indicators of quality. Scientists at Lincoln Laboratories will use that information to increase the quality of these semiconductors and, ultimately, the efficiency of TPV cells.

Boggess is a member of the Optical Science and Technology Center, and the UI research will be performed in the Iowa Advanced Technology Laboratories.