Powerful Outreach

From Solar Projects to the Physics of Cells

Creighton physics professor the Rev. Andrew Ekpenyong, Ph.D., MS’07, is pictured with Archbishop Joseph Ukpo of Nigeria. Ekpenyong is working with students in Creighton’s Energy Technology Program on a solar project for a hospital under construction in Afua, Nigeria, to be named for Ukpo.

Fr. Ekpenyong was also part of an international research team that explored the process of how cells combat infectious diseases, which may open up new options for disease management and treatment. The team’s research was recently published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America.

Fr. Ekpenyong talks about his research in this video.

Powerful Outreach

by Eugene Curtin

Creighton’s energy technology students get real-world experience while helping nonprofits with alternative energy solutions

Room 119 in Creighton’s Eugene C. Eppley Building is an unassuming space, its bare walls and utilitarian furniture bearing little testimony to the challenges faced by students enrolled in Creighton’s Energy Technology Program.

A hospital in Nigeria and the Siena/Francis homeless shelter in Omaha currently form the focus of their attempts to harness the power of the sun in the form of solar cell technology. In this room, and upon the efforts of these students, rests the humanitarian dream of a Nigerian priest, and the hope of a young, up-and-coming physics professor to prove the efficacy of solar power.

The students conduct their research under the guiding eye of Larry Hopp, a civil engineer whose 40 years as an engineer — 30 with the Kiewit Corporation — prepared him for his new role as program director. Creighton’s Energy Technology Program offers two undergraduate degree tracks as well as a minor in sustainable energy, and its “outdoor classroom” includes the largest solar array in the state of Nebraska.

“We’re trying to apply everything they’ve learned to a real-life project,” Hopp says. “They’re a pretty energetic group, and they’ve accomplished some amazing things already. I just try to give them the problem, stand back and watch them get tuned in.”

The senior class consists of six students, and their challenge reaches into the African nation of Nigeria, where, in 2005, Joseph Ukpo asked Andrew Ekpenyong to further his education in physics, particularly as physics relates to biomedicine.

It was an unusual request for a Catholic archbishop to make of a diocesan priest just two years past ordination, but Archbishop Ukpo had something big in mind, and Fr. Ekpenyong proved fully on board.

That “something big” is a hospital to be built in Afua, Nigeria, the first of three such hospitals planned for the Nigerian ecclesiastical province of Calabar. Its construction is being led by Fr. Ekpenyong, who is conveniently accessible to Creighton students given his role as an assistant professor of physics on campus.

Their challenge is to devise a system of solar panels on the roof of the hospital, and in an adjacent “solar garden,” sufficient to keep the hospital functioning during the frequent outages that plague the power grids of developing nations.

The hospital is the Energy Technology Program’s “Capstone” project, a project that tests the competency and efficiency of those students on the verge of graduation.

But while the seniors ponder the vagaries of Nigerian weather, the program’s sophomores and juniors are working with Andrew Baruth, Ph.D., assistant professor of physics, to design a solar project at the Baright Shelter, which is the men’s dormitory at the Siena/Francis House homeless shelter, not far from the Creighton campus.

The project will use standard silicon-based solar cells, although students have the opportunity to help Baruth conduct lab research into emerging solar cell technology based on sulfides.

The sulfide research aims to produce next-generation solar cells capable of absorbing 1,000 times the energy-producing sunlight of silicon cells. It will be conducted in cooperation with the Omaha Public Power District (OPPD), which is supplying grant assistance in an effort to explore the future of solar power.

The two projects, in addition to the sulfide solar research, reflect the intent of the Energy Technology Program to give students cutting-edge, real-world experience.

The Nigerian Hospital Project

The seniors working with Fr. Ekpenyong were tasked with multiple facets of the hospital’s solar project — from design to devising ways to fund it (including the purchase, installation and maintenance of the solar panels) to proposing alternative power sources should solar prove infeasible.

And they were given five weeks to get it done.

“Sometimes, the real world is like this,” Hopp says. “You have to do it right away. The hospital is already under construction. This is an opportunity to apply their skills to a real-world need.”

The seniors are Ryan Gnabasik, Erin Cheese, Rachel Ketchmark, Andres Rodriguez-Burns, Zach Stading and Jonathan Trudel.

They keep in close touch with Fr. Ekpenyong, who earned a master’s degree in physics from Creighton in 2007 and a Ph.D. in 2012 from Cambridge University in England. Fr. Ekpenyong joined Creighton’s physics faculty in 2014, and teaches general physics and coordinates the undergraduate teaching laboratories.

The Nigerian hospital will be called the Joseph Ukpo Hospital and Research Institute, in honor of Archbishop Ukpo, who retired last year at the age of 75.

Fr. Ekpenyong says the students’ work is critical to meeting World Health Organization requirements that the hospital be energy efficient and have access to an alternative energy source.

Although the students are 6,000 miles away from the worksite, Fr. Ekpenyong says they are working hand in glove with the Nigerian workers who are clearing the land by hand, building concrete blocks from cement and digging foundations with shovels.

They are a people without access to modern medical facilities, he says, and the students’ knowledge and skills can change that harsh fact.

“There are no medical vehicles,” Fr. Ekpenyong says. “If someone gets a gash in his leg, he must walk to a clinic no matter how far, and even then it will probably be an unskilled doctor working in the open air.”

Stading, one of the seniors on the project, says Fr. Ekpenyong explained his needs to the group, and they saw an opportunity.

“Since we have been learning about this (profession) for the past four years, we thought this would be a great opportunity for us to apply our skills in a real-world scenario,” he says.

Stading and his fellow students studied the issue and developed a report.

They found that 120 solar panels on the roof, and another 40 in an adjacent solar garden would be enough to support critical machines in the event of a power outage. The solar energy would be stored in batteries. The students also proposed an aquaponics system to provide food for the hospital. They estimate it would cost little more than $6,000 to install the water-and-fish system that would recycle fish waste to provide food to grow edible plants.

The challenge, as in all things, is funding.

The total cost of the solar panel project, including transporting materials to Nigeria along with on-site installation, is estimated at $78,300, with the 160 solar panels absorbing $40,000 of that total. Grants will be sought from private foundations, along with private donations from various sources.

Proposal for Homeless Shelter

The solar revolution occupied Room 119 again in December when a public forum was held on the Siena/Francis House project. Baruth’s students presented a feasibility study laying out how the project might be achieved.

The Siena/Francis project is something of a team effort involving the Energy Technology Program, OPPD and Nebraskans for Solar, a tax-exempt organization dedicated to developing solar power projects.

OPPD is eager to see a solar project get off the ground, Baruth says, both to demonstrate the feasibility of the technology and to engage the public, without whose support progress will be much slower.

To that end, Baruth divided his students into three groups and challenged them each to draw up a proposal for installing silicon-based solar panels.

The three proposals presented in the December forum demonstrated the ongoing difficulties posed by cost. The three presentations placed the project cost anywhere from about $64,000 to $110,000 and placed the period at which the installation would begin generating savings — the “pay-back period” — anywhere from 17 to 37 years.

The project is a useful test for his students, Baruth says, and will remain so as they face the challenge of securing funding.

The students’ research showed that about 100 solar panels should be installed at Siena/Francis, either directly on the building or at some other location nearby. They would generate no more than 25 kilowatts of power. Above that, the produced solar power exceeds OPPD’s net metering guidelines.

The 25 kilowatt limit is typical of the public policy obstacles with which solar power must contend, Baruth says. To those barriers is added the high cost of installation.

In some ways, he says, public policy is a greater obstacle than the science, adding layers of cost to a product that is essentially inexpensive.

“The cost of a solar cell pales in comparison to the cost of installing solar,” he says. “It’s a fraction of the actual cost. There’s a lot of infrastructure, a lot of red tape that needs to be cut.”

But Baruth says he is confident Creighton’s energy technology students are fighting a winnable fight. Solar technology is advancing, he says, and strides are being made in other states, including California, Arizona and Nevada.

“The rules there have changed quite a bit,” he says. “You are beginning to see large-scale photovoltaics being installed in large fields, arrays that are a mile long and are producing half a gigawatt of power — the equivalent of a public power station completely produced by a solar array.”

The New Frontier: Sulfide-Based Solar Cells

A bonus for Baruth’s students is the opportunity to gain research experience into the coming photovoltaic solar technology of sulfide-based solar cells.

These are an alternative to traditional silicon panels, and could revolutionize solar technology if their feasibility is demonstrated. Silicon is one of the most abundant materials in the earth’s crust, and its availability has made it the first choice for solar cells. The problem with silicon, Baruth says, is that purifying it is an expensive process. Even so, silicon has been the foundational element of solar technology for the past 50 years.

Given the purification drawback, scientists are beginning to look at other elements that look very much like silicon, behave much like silicon, but can be less expensively adapted for solar use. Some of these alternatives, like indium and gallium, are rare chemical elements and therefore expensive. Others, like cadmium, are dangerous.

So it is that sulfide-based solar cells have been attracting attention.

Infinitely available, and therefore a sustainable technology, sulfides have a potential solar absorption capacity that is 1,000 times greater than a traditional silicon cell. That means, Baruth says, that a sulfide photovoltaic cell could be one thousand times thinner than a silicon cell and absorb the same amount of light. The implications for cost reductions are enormous. But just as significant are the implications for flexibility. A substance so thin could be manufactured in sheets of film and wrapped around buildings, or even attached to something as mundane as a backpack.

Sulfide-based cells are so thin they can be stacked an incredible 7 million to a meter.

It is an emerging technology, and silicon continues to dominate the solar industry, but Baruth and his students are clearly intent on exploring sulfide’s potential.

“We really want to show that these things are feasible,” he says.