University of Texas at El Paso students focusing on materials science and engineering research will benefit from a $3.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.
Distributed over five years, the grant will create a collaborative program between UTEP and the Materials Research Laboratory at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
Awarded through the foundation's Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials, the program aims to increase participation and advanced degree attainment of under-represented minorities, primarily Hispanic students, in materials science and engineering.
Most of the money will cover travel costs for students between California and El Paso, student research stipends and the purchase of materials and supplies, said Luis Echegoyen, the Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry at UTEP and principal investigator for the award.
The work at UTEP and UC Santa Barbara will span from theoretical to engineering components of improving the efficiency of organic solar cells, which Echegoyen has focused much of his research on since starting at UTEP in 2010.
About 20 graduate students and 30 undergraduate students, focusing on engineering, physics and chemistry at UTEP, will participate in the research opportunities every year, said Echegoyen, who was the director of the Chemistry Division at the National Science Foundation before coming to UTEP.
Echegoyen and his students are some of the first to work in the $69.2 million Chemistry
and Computer Science Building, which opened earlier this year.
University officials hope the new state-of-the-art building and the NSF grant will accelerate UTEP's progress toward becoming a Tier One, or national research, institution.
"This grant validates the highly competitive research that Dr. Luis Echegoyen is conducting in UTEP's world-class facilities," UTEP President Diana Natalicio said in a statement. "UTEP's commitment to creating enriched educational experiences for Latino students in this region is greatly enhanced through partnerships such as this one with UCSB."
Both UTEP and UC Santa Barbara have extensive, well-established materials research programs, said Sean Jones, program director of the NSF's Partnerships for Research and Education in Materials.
The foundation, which runs the PREM competition every two to three years, provides $5.9 million in average annual support for all active partnerships.
This year, the foundation awarded six grants.
"The goal (of PREM) seeks to enable or broaden the pipeline of under-represented minorities engaged in materials research," Jones said. "We count it a success if students stay in STEM, so that could be pursuing graduate careers or careers in industry."
Research in UTEP's carbon nanomaterials laboratory, which Echegoyen oversees, focuses on fullerenes, soccer-ball-shaped carbon molecules with uncommon electronic properties, and on efforts to manipulate the electron-accepting ability of the molecules to make organic solar energy cells more affordable and sustainable.
Inorganic solar cells, which are used in solar panels, are heavy, hard and rigid, whereas organic solar cells are light and flexible, Echegoyen said.
"In the long run, they should be cheaper because you can use a small amount of materials to make them," Echegoyen said. "They are initially envisioned for niche markets like small electronics, but there's no reason to think organic photovoltaic cells won't make it to the roof of your house."
Hayley Kappes may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6168. Follow her on Twitter @hayleykappes.
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