Harnessing Efficient Solar Cells with Quantum Mechanics

Exploring quantum coherence in condensed state systems

If it could be properly harnessed, there's enough sunlight that falls on the earth in just one hour to meet the world's energy demands for a whole year! Therefore, our whole energy problem could be solved if we could somehow find a way to harness solar energy more efficiently. Dr. Eric Bittner, of the University of Houston, is motivated by the dream that all households will one day have affordable solar power that they can use to power their devices. Dr. Bittner's research works to find these microscopic fundamental interactions in order to create new light-weight and highly efficient solar cells which will greatly impact our energy source and technologies. Moreover, his research can help experimentalists understand theoretically the ways that quantum phenomena play important roles in very diverse systems with the utmost precision. His research ties state-of-the-art theory to state-of-the-art laser experiments on state-of-the-art devices.

Dr. Bittner's belief is that by understanding how molecules work at the level of quantum mechanics, scientists can understand and possibly manipulate how molecular-scale properties are manifest in larger-scale systems. If scientists understand the microscopic fundamental interactions between mixed polymers, they can learn how that influences the ultimate behavior and therefore craft innovative and powerful technologies. The details of his work involve coupling high-level quantum theory with novel approaches to treat the time-dependent many-body quantum dynamics of mesoscale systems. Through the collaboration of the top experimental groups in the world, including those at Cambridge University, Imperial College, London, Princeton, and the University of Montreal, he can connect his theoretical models directly to cutting-edge experimental efforts trying to probe the inner workings of polymer solar cells. Therefore by using his talents in chemistry and theory, Dr. Bittner's research is leading to applications that will help others.

Current research includes:

  • Efficiency in Solar Cells: Dr. Bittner and his collaborators are in the process of demonstrating that the breakup of a photoexcitation inside a polymer photovoltaic cell is a quantum mechanically coherent culling process where the charges separate by long distance in ultrafast time scales and do so according to the laws of quantum mechanics in one step. This demonstration is contrary to the previously presented paradigm which suggests that charges cannot separate within only one step. His research will result in applications that increase the efficiency of polymer solar cells and thereby allow scientists and community members to have more efficient polymer solar cells for our technologies.

  • Quantum Control of Chemical Process: In the near future, Dr. Bittner will demonstrate that one can perform a series of ultrafast quantum measurements on a working photovoltaic device and control the coherence between the optically prepared states and the observed photocurrent.   Because quantum control of a chemical process has long been one of the "Holy Grails" in the field of Chemical Physics this research has incredible applications in theoretical frameworks. 

  • Model for Energy and Charge-Transfer Dynamics: Dr. Bittner has developed a fully quantum (electronic + nuclear) model for energy and charge-transfer dynamics in molecular systems.  This is an important tool for modeling dynamics and interpreting (and predicting) new multi-dimensional experimental spectroscopic probes of photoexcited systems.


Hailing from Decatur, Indiana, Bittner obtained his B.S. in chemistry and in physics from Valparaiso University in 1988 and his Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in 1994  with a thesis titled Quantum Theories of Energy Exchange at the Gas-Surface Interface. Subsequently, he worked at the University of Texas at Austin until 1996 as Postdoctoral Fellow of the National Science Foundation. He was visiting scholar at Stanford University from 1995 to 1997. In 1997, he joined the University of Houston as assistant professor of theoretical chemistry and since 2009, has held the John and Rebecca Moores Distinguished Professorship in Chemical Physics at the University of Houston--becoming the youngest faculty UH faculty member to hold a Moores Chair.  He has held visiting appointments at the University of Cambridge, the Ecole Normale Superieure, Paris, Los Alamos National Lab, and the University of Montreal.  Dr. Bittner is also Guggenheim Fellow and Fulbright Canada Scholar.

Dr. Bittner's love of chemistry and exploring nature began at an early age. As an Eagle Scout, he lead his fellow Scouts on a number of adventures--including one where they were lost for two weeks in Ontario. ("Not our fault! We were put in at the wrong location. It took just a few days for us to figure out where we actually were.")  He recalls building an engine that was based upon ionic propulsion as a child and almost electrocuted his grandmother when she was curious about how it worked. However, as he wanted to learn more about how things work at their most fundamental level, he was drawn towards more theoretical frameworks. Despite his theoretical approach as a researcher, Dr. Bittner continues to have fun "playing around" with chemistry and thinking about how molecules work and interact with each other. In addition to his fun surrounding chemistry, he also has a love of music. He has played the guitar for over forty years and even has a recording studio attached to his lab where students and other UH professors have jam sessions together. Outside of the lab, he is a committed community member through Scouting and recently formed a new Sea Scout unit in his area.

Website: k2.chem.uh.edu


Fulbright Scholar, Canada

Visiting Scholar, Stanford University, 1996-1997

NSF Postdoctoral Fellow, UT Austin, 1994-1996