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NIU Today | Chemistry’s Tao Xu recognized with rare NSF award

Chemistry Professor Tao Xu has been recognized with a rare National Science Foundation Special Creativity award, believed to be the first ever for an NIU researcher.

The special award of NSF’s Division for Materials Research is designed to recognize the most creative investigators who are attacking research problems at the forefront of their fields.

As a recipient of the award, Dr. Xu will receive an automatic two-year extension on his 2018 NSF grant of $311,000, with an additional $238,000 in funding support. The funding award cites his excellent research, productivity and impact in developing hybrid organic-inorganic perovskite materials for solar cells, as well as the broader impacts emanating from the project.

Special Creativity extensions give researchers an extended opportunity to attack adventurous, high-risk opportunities in the same general research area, but not necessarily covered by the original award.

Typically initiated by program officers, the extensions are extremely rare. NSF awards about 12,000 grants per year; in FY19, the federal agency awarded just 15 Special Creativity extensions.

“This is a much-deserved recognition of Dr. Xu’s innovative work on next-generation solar cells,” said Jerry Blazey, NIU’s Vice President for Research and Innovation Partnerships. “His research in this and other areas could have a lasting impact by increasing the renewable energy supply and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.”

Xu and his students and colleagues are working to solve challenges with perovskite materials—considered rising stars in the field of solar energy. Perovskite solar cells convert light into electricity. They’re potentially cheaper and simpler to produce than traditional silicon-based solar cells and, on a small scale in laboratory settings, have demonstrated comparable performance levels.

However, key challenges remain before perovskite solar cells can become a competitive commercial technology. One major challenge has been the use of lead. Most top-performing hybrid perovskite solar cells contain water-dissolvable lead, raising concerns over potential leakage from damaged cells.

Just last year, Xu and colleagues reported in the journal Nature on a potential breakthrough in this area.

The team developed a technique to sequester the lead in perovskite solar cells and minimize potential toxic leakage by applying lead-absorbing films to the front and back of the solar cell. His team also has made other important advances with perovskites, including solving stability issues.

Xu said the Special Creativity extension for work on the project came as a complete surprise.

“I’m very excited because this award recognizes not only our research efforts but also my work with underrepresented graduate students, many of whom have gone on to impressive careers of their own,” Xu said.

Six alumni of his research group are women, including a current assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison; a research scientist for a Fortune 130 company; a chemist at Argonne National Laboratory; and two post-doctoral students at Argonne.

“I have prepared and mentored students toward their careers and continue to mentor them after graduation,” Xu says. “I’m hopeful this recognition will encourage our future students as well.”

Xu has been on a roll in recent years on several fronts. He also leads a research team that is developing a prototype low-cost system for capturing carbon dioxide (CO2) waste from manufacturing emissions and cleanly converting it into ethanol. That project is receiving $2 million in funding over three years from the US Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy.

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