Auburn professor will research solar energy with National Science Foundation grant

AUBURN – Wei Zhan, assistant professor in the College of Sciences and Mathematics at Auburn University, has received a five-year, $580,000 National Science Foundation Faculty Early Career Development, or CAREER, award, to conduct research on solar energy.

Zahn’s research proposal is titled “Molecular Photovoltaics – A Lipid-Based Approach” and his research is designed to provide insight into a more efficient conversion of solar energy to electrical energy. Although solar energy has the potential to reduce dependence on fossil fuels, many current technologies are inefficient and costly.

“Solar energy is essentially inexhaustible and doesn’t generate green-house gases,” Zhan said. “The traditional, silicon-based photovoltaic panels are very efficient and durable but they are so expensive that they can’t replace fossil fuels yet as the major energy source. Low-cost alternatives are always welcome.”

The award supports early career development activities that combine both research and education. In addition to his research, Zhan’s educational project initiatives will include classes and demonstrations to broaden awareness of alternative energy generation and outreach activities for a broad audience.

“At this moment, our research doesn’t involve building practical devices, but with the lipid-based model system, we may have a test bed on which many physiochemical parameters critical to improving solar energy conversion efficiency can be studied systematically,” he said.

“Dr. Zhan’s CAREER award recognizes the contemporary nature of his research in solar energy conversion and materials chemistry and his commitment to teaching and science outreach,” College of Sciences and Mathematics Dean Stewart Schneller said.

“This award is the most prestigious award granted by the NSF to young professors like me,” Zhan said. “I feel grateful and lucky to be a recipient.”

Zhan joins Holly Ellis and Susanne Striegler as the third faculty member from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry to receive the award.

“The success of our faculty with the CAREER program is directly tied to COSAM’s strong outreach program,” said Marie Wooten, associate dean for research in the College of Sciences and Mathematics. “This link enables faculty to distinguish themselves and connect with an existing program to conduct science outreach through interaction with parents, teachers and the K-12 community, employing a suite of innovative programs.”

(Written by Carol Nelson.)

Contact: Timothy Meeks (334) 844-2445 (, or
Mike Clardy (334) 844-9999 (