Struggling to understand the mechanics of an equation, how it works and when to use it, is nothing new to University students — particularly engineering students. Quite often I’ve found myself studying late into the night, groggily sorting out Greek letters, integrals and derivatives, because — as most engineers know — the best way to master these concepts is practice, practice, practice.

In spite of the dread so often associated with applying equations, I’ve come to terms with the fact that they’re needed to describe the natural and man-made world. Without Newton’s laws or Einstein’s famous energy equation, the science community and society as a whole would be up a creek without a paddle. Though Newton lived nearly 280 years ago, his equations are still a critical part of how we describe our world and a new breakthrough by University researchers may have the same lasting effect.

Recently, University Professor of Electrical Engineering Steve Forest and his team of researchers developed an equation capable of describing the electrical current and voltage properties of organic semiconductors. This would allow organic materials to potentially be used for solar cells and high-efficiency lighting. According to an Oct. 20 University of Michigan News Service article, Forest said that “the field of organic semiconductor research is still in its infancy” and it’s not possible to make “complicated circuits with them yet.” But this newborn equation has the potential to reshape our world in the same way that Newton did.

What makes this equation so exciting is that it allows scientists to understand “the relationship of current to voltage at junctions of organic semiconductors.” Organic — meaning carbon-based — semiconductors are typically large and complex in their chemical make-up. This poses some serious problems for researchers trying to use organic polymers in applications that require knowledge of how electrical current flows in the material. Being able to describe the electrical properties of an organic semiconductor makes it possible for researchers to explore how carbon-based materials could be used in a variety of applications — most notably, solar panels.

One of the main drawbacks of today’s solar panels is that the polymers used have a relatively low efficiency rating of about 13 percent. This means that of all the solar energy hitting the area of the panel, only about 13 percent can be transformed into usable electricity. Forest’s equation opens up the field of organic materials for researchers to boost the power output and efficiency ratings of solar panels.

This higher efficiency rating would make solar panels a more attractive alternative energy option for both commercial and personal use. If these new organic polymers could raise the total energy output of a solar panel by just a few percent, the fiscal incentives of installing these panels become more and more enticing. Currently, DTE — the energy company that supplies power to many people in the state — has a program where they help to install solar panels onto homes. The energy generated by the panels is then fed directly into the electrical grid — essentially “charging” the grid.

The electrical bill for a home with these solar panels reflects the difference between the power the home uses and the power its solar panels generate, which greatly reduces overall cost. The idea of making homes and businesses energy self-sufficient is exciting for homeowners and environmentalist alike. It could even result in a refund check from DTE — that is, if the power generated by the home is more than the amount of power used.

Right now, we’re using fossil fuels at an unsustainable rate and we’re at risk of running out sometime in the next 200 years. The University has often found itself seeking an answer to this global problem through both education and research. The University’s effort to raise awareness of the problems and solutions of the energy crisis we are currently facing, as well as the advancements of University researchers, is deserving of praise.

We have come to realize that the key to energy of the future is green. The development of Forest’s equation is one of the many ways the University is attacking this issue head on. If we’re able to lead the charge in developing energy efficient solar panels, then University researchers, students and the state as a whole will benefit.

Joe Sugiyama can be reached at jmsugi@umich.edu.

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