The University of Tennessee is home to the new Tennessee Solar Institute, a joint-venture with Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

"Wish that I was on ole rocky top,

Down in the Tennessee hills.

Ain’t no smoggy smoke on rocky top,

Ain’t no telephone bills."

Those are the opening lyrics to the University of Tennessee’s popular fight song. The lack of “smoggy smoke” may be one reason why the university is home to the new Tennessee Solar Institute (TSI). The organization is a joint-venture between UT and Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL).

“Our goal is simple-to bring Tennessee and the United States to a more sustainable future and energy independence,” notes John Sanseverino, director of programs. “[We] bring together scientists, students, policy makers and industry partners to generate transformative changes to the field of solar-generated energy production.”

Sanseverino says TSI hopes to position Tennessee as a leader in the solar industry. He and his colleagues are working on several initiatives, such as the West Tennessee Solar Farm. The 5-megawatt, 20-acre installation is a learning lab that just opened along Interstate 40 near Brownsville, TN.

The facility consists of more than 20,000 high-efficiency silicon-based photovoltaic modules that will produce more than 7,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually. Its solar array features fixed-tilt, ground-mounted photovoltaic solar panels.

“The solar farm will be a showcase for a range of commercially available solar techniques and technologies,” Sanseverino points out. “In addition to its education mission, the farm will serve as a showcase for Tennessee-made solar products and components.”

By partnering with ORNL, the Tennessee Solar Institute is positioned on the cutting edge of research. “We’re focusing on solar energy conversion and energy storage,” says Chad Duty, TSI director of technology and ORNL solar technologies program manager. “Our engineers are working on the next-generation of solar technology, such as artificial photosynthesis and nanomaterials.”

Researchers are using an LED lighting tool to study the light response of the membrane stack in blue-green algae found in almost every environment. Bacteria, algae and plants have light-harvesting antenna systems that capture the sun’s light and transfer the energy to reaction centers.

“The device facilitates research into biologically inspired solar cell devices,” says Duty. “These studies are useful for developing biomimetic and bioanalytical solar cell devices.”

The ORNL scientists are also developing nanomaterials, such as quantum dots, nanoparticles, nanowires and nanotubes, that allow tunability of structure and functionality of thin-film photovoltaics. For instance, a team recently created a 3D nanocone-based solar cell platform that boosts the light-to-power conversion efficiency of photovoltaics by nearly 80 percent.

“Key features of the solar material include its unique electric field distribution that achieves efficient charge transport; the synthesis of nanocones using inexpensive proprietary methods; and the minimization of defects and voids in semiconductors,” says Duty. “The latter provides enhanced electric and optical properties for conversion of solar photons to electricity. Because of efficient charge transport, the new solar cell can tolerate defective materials and reduce cost in fabricating next-generation solar cells.”

Students at the University of Tennessee are also involved in real-world solar power applications. For instance, a team of undergraduate and graduate students recently participated in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon. The 10-day event on the Washington Mall pitted universities in a wide variety of events. The Tennessee team finished in eighth place overall, but it captured third in engineering, fifth in architecture and third in the use of energy-efficient appliances.

The students designed and built a 750-square-foot house that was inspired by Appalachia’s cantilever barns. Team Living Right was a multidisciplinary group composed of students and faculty from UT’s College of Engineering, School of Art, and College of Architecture and Design.