Yang Qin
Yang Qin in his lab.
Credit: Steve Carr

Yang Qin, an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at the University of New Mexico, has received a five-year, $525,000 National Science Foundation (NSF) Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Award for research involving organic photovoltaics.

Qin’s futuristic research, titled Bottom-Up Approaches for Precisely Nanostructuring Hybrid Organic/Inorganic Multi-Component Composites,” could lead to products that generate electricity directly from sunlight. If the research is successful, humans could one day wear clothes that generate electricity from the sunlight.

“The CAREER Award means a lot to our lab and to myself because we have research startups at the end of last year, where we pretty much exhausted our funds,” Qin said. “This Career Award came with very good timing. On the other hand, it’s an approval of what we have done. It’s a good evaluation of our previous efforts including my students and myself. We feel very good about receiving this award. Otherwise, we couldn’t have continued in this direction.”

Innovative research often starts at the most basic levels – many times in the lab of a chemist where several interdisciplinary types of research crossing various disciplines from engineering to the medical field begins.

"Understanding the intricacies of cooperative effects of molecular interactions and material structural parameters that control the self-assembly processes of specially designed molecules is key to the research."  - Yang Qin, assistant professor, Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology

Qin’s research, which is highly interdisciplinary and encompasses areas including chemistry, physics and engineering, is focused on affordable, renewable energy resources such as organic, polymer and materials chemistry including design, synthesis and integration of novel polymeric materials into organic photovoltaics (OPV’s) for low-cost renewable energy sources. In short, the polymer-based, flexible solar cells can potentially revolutionize everyday life as we currently know it.

“Our aim is to understand the fundamental physics and mechanisms behind the operation of OPVs and to improve their efficiencies through design and synthesis of novel polymeric materials, precise morphology control using nanotechnologies and architectural artistry in fabrication of OPV devices,” Qin said. “This requires mastering knowledge and skills in different disciplines ranging from traditional organic, physical and polymer chemistry to physics, engineering and newly emerged nanotechnologies.”

Comparing his research to solar cells on rooftops of houses, Qin says the photovoltaic cells on rooftops have intrinsic drawbacks including heavy weight (due to their thickness), very rigid and brittle, meaning they break easily and they are also very expensive to fabricate.

An organic photovoltaic cell is part of Yang Qin's research which is focused on creating affordable, renewable energy resources.

Qin mentions chemistry basics that are key to his research, which is aimed at establishing an integrated education and research program utilizing bottom-up, self-assembly approaches borrowed from nature, to construct precisely-controlled structures on the nanometer scale, and produce organic solar cells with enhanced performance and stability.

“Understanding the intricacies of cooperative effects of molecular interactions and material structural parameters that control the self-assembly processes of specially designed molecules is key to the research,” Qin said. “New designs and synthetic methodologies for constructing semiconducting polymers and block copolymers will be developed and a fundamental knowledge base on structure-property relationships of newly-prepared materials will be established."

These findings will not only advance basic sciences but can also be extended to a wide range of materials and hierarchical nanostructures for organic electronic applications Qin says. Students working on these projects will gain interdisciplinary knowledge and skills, which will benefit their future scientific careers. New courses emphasizing materials chemistry and energy research will be developed and refined over the years.

Additionally, an outreach program, designed to attract K-12 students in New Mexico, especially Hispanics and Native Americans, into sciences will also be established. These historically underrepresented students will obtain hands-on experiences in chemistry and materials sciences by means of one-day field-trips to the UNM campus.

“Overall, the proposed activities will not only advance the basic sciences, but also foster the mission to train a diverse group of skilled scientists who will make positive impacts on society's future,” Qin said.

The Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program is a Foundation-wide activity that offers the NSF’s most prestigious awards in support of junior faculty who exemplify the role of teacher-scholars through outstanding research, excellent education and the integration of education and research within the context of the mission of their organizations. Such activities should build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.