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New Engineering Prof Hopes to Ignite Interest in Photovoltaic Research at ODU

When Sylvain Marsillac was looking for a subject to study when he started his master's two decades ago, he looked across the sciences at a number of different disciplines. An adviser suggested he dive into the emerging field of generating electricity from the rays of the sun, so-called photovoltaic energy (PV).

Marsillac is now a PV research specialist. And he's excited about the collaborations he'll be able to make with Old Dominion University researchers now that he has relocated to Norfolk from the University of Toledo.

"We've already written two grants with collaborators in the Frank Batten College of Engineering and Technology," said Marsillac, whose official appointment as an ODU associate professor of electrical and computer engineering starts in January. When he joins the ODU faculty, Marsillac will have already secured $600,000 in funding.

At the University of Toledo, Marsillac and his colleagues attracted more than $20 million worth of funding for research into PV energy.

Oktay Baysal, Dean of the Batten College, said ODU is fortunate to have attracted Marsillac.

"ODU Engineering is committed to sustainable development and alternative energy solutions. Along with our efforts in wind and biomass, we are looking into affordable and highly efficient photovoltaic cells for solar power," he said.

PV energy is generated when the sun's rays react with glass plates, or flexible substrates, coated with particular semiconductors, converting the resulting photons into electricity.

"The question is, are these materials as efficient as they should be? The answer is no," Marsillac said. "If they're 10 percent efficient, how can we make them 15 percent, or 20? So that's what we're working on, managing to find new ways of combining materials, engineering the materials, to transform more of the sun's rays into energy."

Marsillac sees many research opportunities with ODU electrical engineering faculty members at the Applied Research Center in Newport News, such as Professor Hani Elsayed-Ali, director of the facility, Professor Helmut Baumgart and Assistant Professor Gon Namkoong, as well as with Professor Sacharia Albin.

"They have specialties in several complementary areas. Together, we can hopefully work together to create devices even more efficient and affordable," he said.

Marsillac, whose wife, Erika, an expert in green supply chain management, joined the university this fall as an assistant professor of information technology and decision sciences in the College of Business and Public Administration, sees great potential for his research here in Hampton Roads.

"The 'payback time' for your investment is much shorter. Solar energy illumination is much better in Virginia" than in Ohio, where he came from, Marsillac said. And there's certainly more annual sunlight here than in Germany, the country that leads the world in PV research and electricity generation.

Marsillac said that while research funds don't yet match the government's rhetoric about the need for clean, renewable energy, a far more durable funding source has emerged - entrepreneurs.

"A couple of years ago, everything changed as companies started to realize there is actually a market for it. In the case of green energy, the green is also for the dollar now," Marsillac said.

Although the large amount of venture capital going into PV research has slowed with the economic downturn of the past few years, Marsillac said, Hampton Roads' skilled, diverse manufacturing base, plus access to one of the largest seaports on the East Coast, makes this region an ideal incubator for an entrepreneur looking to invest in solar energy.

For the foreseeable future, alternative energy researchers will have to compete for research and subsidy dollars with the producers of conventional, nonrenewable energy sources. The key, he said, is to continue to demonstrate the higher value of research in fields like PV.

"Ten years ago when I would go to a conference, people would say, 'In 10 years, there will be no oil,'" Marsillac said. "Now I go to a conference and they say, 'In 10 years, there will be no oil.' So my guess is that in 10 years, there will still be oil. There are still these fossil fuel resources you can find if you are willing to tap anywhere."

"The question is, how much does it cost to extract it, how dangerous is it for the environment, and could I do renewable energy cheaper and cleaner?"

Marsillac is thankful that he will have an opportunity to pursue his research here, at Old Dominion University. He thanked Provost Carol Simpson, Dean Baysal, Associate Dean Bernie Bohm, Electrical and Computational Engineering Department Chair Shirshak Dhali for their support in his hiring.

This article was posted on: October 5, 2010

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