VOLUME 19 #1

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Solar cell research to benefit Pakistan’s remote villages

S. Ismat Shah
Photo by Ambre Alexander
Ismat Shah is working to help Pakistani scientists develop photovoltaics for sustainable electricity.

RESEARCH | A University scientist is helping researchers in Pakistan study solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuels.

S. Ismat Shah, a professor with joint appointments in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Physics and Astronomy, estimates that 40 to 45 percent of villages in his native Pakistan do not have electricity.

Pakistan currently depends on fossil fuels for more than 80 percent of its energy requirements. Solar power, particularly photovoltaics, is considered an untapped resource due to the country’s geographical location in a region that receives abundant sunshine throughout much of the year.

“The great thing about solar cell technology is that it brings electricity without wires,” Shah says. “You take a panel, put it up on your hut or shanty, and you’ve got power.”

Photovoltaics, also known as solar cell technology, is the process of generating electricity from light. Shah’s work is funded through a $216,000 grant from the U.S. Department of State under the Pakistan-U.S. Science and Technology Cooperation Program, which aims to increase cooperation in science, technology, engineering and education between the two countries.


Shah is collaborating with Salamat Ali of Government College University in Lahore, Pakistan, to establish a research laboratory there and to train Pakistani researchers in creating, testing and studying organic polymer-based photovoltaics as a means to address the country’s critical energy needs in a sustainable manner. To date, Pakistani research in photovoltaics is almost nonexistent.

“There are very good scientists in Pakistan; what they lack is resources,” says Shah, whose proposal was one of only 28 selected from among 270 applicants to receive funding. Ali will receive separate funding from Pakistan’s Higher Education Commission.

Polymer-based photovoltaics are flexible and can literally be painted on almost any surface, eliminating the need for sophisticated equipment. In Pakistan, this will enable even those living in remote villages to harness the sun’s energy to create electricity where infrastructure hasn’t yet reached.

In the U.S., they can also be used for many purposes. For example, the solar cells could be painted onto a woman’s purse, allowing her to charge her cell phone on the way to work, or they could be placed on a farmer’s irrigation system so that crops could be watered without using electricity.

Although cheaper than their inorganic silicon counterparts, polymer photovoltaics have had limited success so far. The three-year project will address the three major issues affecting polymer solar cell technology—efficiency, transport and lifetime. If successful, these nontraditional approaches could potentially reduce barriers to efficient large-scale production of organic photovoltaics in Pakistan.

Under the grant, Shah will teach courses in solar cell technology and thin-film technology at the university in Lahore to draw beginning Pakistani researchers into this effort. In addition, undergraduate and graduate students in both countries will visit each other’s universities to learn from one another and share findings. Shah says he hopes that by working together on a project of shared scientific interest, participants will forge both personal and professional ties.

“One of my personal goals for the project is the development of a mutual respect between the scientists and students, both in Pakistan and here in the United States,” he says. “This grant opens the possibility of taking all of my current students to Pakistan to witness the achievements of scientists there, scientists who do wonderful things with very few resources.”

Article by Karen B. Roberts, AS ’90

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