That globe-spanning partnership, between NJIT and the China National Building Materials Company (CNBM), one of the largest gypsum, cement, and fiber glass producers in the world, exists in large part thanks to the persistence of a technology-focused alumnus, Jingong Pan, Ph.D. ’08.
“Two countries combined can change the world,” says Pan, who became convinced that thin-film photovoltaic technology represented the future of solar power while he was earning a doctorate in electrical and computer engineering and began seeking backers to advance the research.
It was in 2007, just as the U.S. economy began its disastrous slide into a prolonged recession, Pan recalls, that he noticed solar panel stocks were climbing. Despite the souring investment climate, he was encouraged, focusing on cadmium telluride-based thin-film rather than silicon-based panels, which are the longtime industry standard.
When he returned to China after graduating, Pan affiliated with Apollo Solar Science& Technology Company, a leading miner and refiner of rare earth metals used in thin-film cells. His dream was to advance the technology so that thin-film would be more cost-competitive and he started raising money to create a research center at NJIT. He was successful in selling his vision, and in 2010 the university established a center headed by physics professor Ken Chin.
Chin and his team are currently focused on thin-film cells based on both CIGS (copper indium gallium selenide) and cadmium telluride, which are potentially lower-cost alternatives to silicon because they require fewer natural resources to produce electricity and take up much less space on buildings. The group has developed important insights into the physics of the photoelectric behavior of these materials, which suggests that new manufacturing conditions could produce much higher cell efficiencies.
“Our partnership with Jingong has paid dividends beyond anyone’s imagination when we began working together,” says Donald Sebastian, senior vice president for research and development at NJIT. “Not only are we seeing university researchers bring powerful scientific understanding to bear on an important new technology, but with Jingong’s help the relationship has blossomed into other partnerships with China’s leading industrialists. It has also given NJIT the opportunity to connect to many of our graduate school alumni who have returned home to take up important positions in government and industry.”
The research also furthers a U.S. strategy to develop distributed power generation using building-integrated photovoltaics, Sebastian adds, noting, “If just the rooftops of the world’s commercial buildings were equipped with current generation solar panels, it would satisfy ten percent of the global energy need. Imagine if every surface of civil infrastructure and private housing could be generating power.”
The Center was rededicated last year as the China National Building Materials Photovoltaic Materials Research Center after Apollo formed a joint venture with CNBM. Its mission has been expanded to include improving the efficiency of photocells, photovoltaic modules, and full panel systems.
Born in Hangzhou, Pan spent nearly a decade working in oil exploration in China as the leader of an engineering team before earning a master’s degree in energy economics at Harbin Institute of Technology (HIT) and then serving as a technical advisor for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation. He enrolled at NJIT for further study and to spend time in the U.S. absorbing what he calls the country’s “innovation spark.”
Now the chairman and CEO of Apollo Solar Energy, Pan says he briefly considered applying for a job on Wall Street after earning his master’s degree, but changed his mind after receiving advice from an unexpected quarter: former Sen. Frank Lautenberg.
“He spoke at a seminar for small businesses and I talked to him at length after. He urged me to take the long view, saying, “If you want to focus on the quick money, go to Wall Street, but if you want a different sort of career, continue your graduate education - get your Ph.D.”