Going Green with Carbon Electronics

 

John Anthony has a list of projects that are all striving to improve the environment.


By Alicia P. Gregory
photo by Lee Thomas

You know the chorus from that old Irving Berlin song: “Anything you can do I can do better. I can do anything better than you.” It pretty much sums up UK chemist John Anthony’s challenge to silicon-based technology. His goal is to take anything you can make with silicon (think ceramics) and make it cheaper and greener with carbon (plastics).

Liquid-crystal displays (LCDs are the hot HDTV sets) and radio-frequency identification (RFIDs are tiny white tags that already appear on some products and will one day replace barcodes) are made from pricey and brittle silicon. But Anthony is tweaking carbon-based molecules to do these things and more. Anthony, an effusive teacher who says his goal is to get his students to understand how the minutia fits into the big-picture solution, is constantly looking for the next big thing. For several years Anthony has been working on flexible solar cells (tiny semiconductors that convert solar light into electricity) to replace expensive silicon solar panels. In a new project, scientists at Cornell University are making solar cells using his tailor-made molecules and buckyballs.

Buckyballs (a.k.a. fullerenes) are soccer-ball shaped molecules composed entirely of carbon atoms. “The intrinsic electrical properties of these things make them great for solar cells,” Anthony says, citing good electrical conductivity and heat resistance. A lot of companies are working on buckyball-based products, but buckyballs aren’t green, and Anthony explains that’s due to the fact it takes a lot of electricity to produce them. “You have to shoot enough juice through graphite to turn it into a gas. And then only a fraction of what you get is buckyballs.

“That’s why we’re jumping in, with our friends at Cornell, to replace buckyballs with cheaper materials and get the work commercialized. A year or two down the road—when you’ll need to drop the price of the technology to really get consumers to buy in—we’ll be ready with a greener and cheaper replacement.” Anthony’s green solution is to chemically transform petroleum byproducts and coal waste into molecules suitable for solar cells. “We can convert 5 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity with our best buckyball mix, and we’re working on matching that with these green molecules.” He adds that his Research Professorship funds are supporting a grad student who has just submitted her first publication on new materials for low-cost plastic solar cells.

Anthony’s tackling another hot technology—flatpanel displays. Think a beautiful flat-screen TV, but one that rolls up and fits in your briefcase. “The display market is the one area where consumers are still spending money. If we can make something ultra-thin, flexible and low-cost, people will want that technology.” In 2005, Anthony founded Outrider Technologies, a company that makes semiconducting materials for a range of applications, especially displays.

He shows a picture of a black and white, 10.5-inch display made by Sony. Incredibly, this flexible, seethrough display—no thicker than a dozen sheets of paper—is made by inkjet printing. Anthony’s molecules are dissolved in a solution and the inkjet printer sprays them onto a flexible material. “My molecules form the control elements, the on-off switch, and this display is 76 dpi—that’s a better resolution than my laptop monitor,” Anthony says.

But Anthony’s not stopping there. His next green display idea—replace the inkjet printer (the solutions required give off volatile organic compounds, chemical gases that contribute to indoor air pollution) with simple crayons. “Yeah, people laugh at my pie-in-the-sky semiconducting crayon. You’d just take the molecule itself and scribble. No waste, no solvent, totally green.”

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