At USF, the promise of true solar innovation

Ask business leaders here what must we do to raise Tampa Bay's economic bar and they say three things.

Innovate — make something new or better.

Educate — train more people to do more complex, 21st century jobs.

Diversify — pick several promising, forward-looking industries and make them competitive pillars of this region's business community.

Ask and you shall receive.

Thursday's demonstration in Tampa of SolarWindow is a potential breakthrough in wide-scale solar energy generation on see-through glass. Unveiled in a cramped room at the University of South Florida's physics department, it may be a prime example of a win-win for the university, the solar power industry and, yes, even this region.

The innovator is Dr. Xiaomei Jiang, chief inventor and lead researcher of a USF team developing ways to transform windows into efficient, energy-generating devices using natural or artificial light sources. Down the road, that could mean millions of commercial buildings and even individual homes could boast windows that can generate more solar electricity and at less cost than the traditional rooftop photovoltaic systems.

The educator in this case is USF. It not only provides the high-powered academic infrastructure that underpins such advanced research, but also trains more people to follow in the footsteps of Jiang and her team in the university's nanotechnology optoelectronics lab.

USF plays one other critical role. Through its patents and licensing, the university hopes to enhance a stream of royalties from commercializing its most promising research efforts. That includes SolarWindow, as well as last year's big-buzz, the TC-5214 antidepressant drug that is undergoing market tests involving drug companies Targacept and giant AstraZeneca.

Royalties from a potential blockbuster product — think boffo licensing agreements like Gatorade for the University of Florida or cancer drug Taxol for Florida State University — can be game changers for universities seeking revenues to enhance their offerings and prestige.

USF enjoyed $17.9 million in royalties in its last fiscal year ending June 30, says assistant vice president Valerie McDevitt of USF's technology licensing office. It's just a start.

Finally, SolarWindow may help diversify the regional economy by boosting one of the more promising fields of the future: alternative renewable energy.

One of the players hoping to push SolarWindow from the lab to the market is a Maryland firm called New Energy Technologies Inc. CEO John Conklin, speaking at Thursday's USF demo, flashed a photo of a prominent downtown Tampa building known as 100 North Tampa to illustrate the potential of SolarWindow.

With conventional rooftop solar panels, the building would enjoy about $20,000 in annual cost savings off its typical energy consumption, he said. If the building's windows on the east, west and south sides (north gets the least sunlight) were spray-coated and rigged with SolarWindow, those savings would range from $40,000 to as much as $70,000.

The flexibility of spray coating surfaces to generate electricity means even electric vehicles might benefit from this USF-originated technology, Conklin suggests. His firm, which is helping to fund Jiang's research at USF in exchange for commercial rights, is exploring all sorts of alternative energy ideas. My favorite: speed bumps designed to generate electricity as vehicles go over them.

Let's not jump the gun. SolarWindow has miles to go before it can deliver a viable, cost-effective solar product people will buy. The scientists are working to boost the electricity output of their fledgling product. Plenty of entrepreneurial university-lab-to-commercial-market efforts fail to deliver because of technology barriers, lack of funding, lousy marketing or simply getting passed by sharper competition.

Right now, I'm not worried about any of that. Let's take some pride and admit to some awe in the sheer creativity of this new concept called SolarWindow. Kudos to Dr. Jiang and researcher Jason Lewis for developing solar cells so small they can be sprayed on glass or any backing to exploit solar energy and convert it to electrical power. And a thumbs up to the support by USF and New Energy Technologies in recognizing they may have a big winner here.

Now comes the next and no easier challenge: delivering this breakthrough to a world pretty eager for new energy ideas.

Contact Robert Trigaux at trigaux@sptimes.com.

At USF, the promise of true solar innovation 09/18/10 [Last modified: Saturday, September 18, 2010 5:31am]

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