15 January, 2023
By David Murphy
Dr. Erkan Aydin, a research scientist based in the KAUST Solar Center (KSC), has been awarded the prestigious European Research Council (ERC) Starting Grant. The ERC, established by the European Union (EU) in 2007, is the premier European funding organization for creative researchers of any age and nationality.
The ERC Starting Grants support early-career principal investigators (PIs) starting their independent research team or program. PIs must demonstrate the ground-breaking nature, ambition, and feasibility of their scientific proposal to receive the grant, which funds the researcher for five years.
Funding is worth €636 million in total and forms part of the EU framework program for research and innovation, Horizon Europe. Over 3,000 ambitious young researchers entered the 2022 competition for grants, with 408 selected for funding support. Aydin became the first KAUST researcher to receive the ERC Grant while working at KAUST.
“The funded projects are chosen from thousands of projects with an acceptance rate of approximately 9-15% based on the available funding. As a result, it is a highly competitive funding program,” he noted.
“I am deeply honored to receive this prestigious and competitive ERC Grant, as it is becoming increasingly recognized internationally as an award for scientific excellence. This grant enables me to advance as a principal investigator and achieve my long-term goals.”
With his research funding, Aydin will leave KAUST within 2023. He will return to Europe to start a research team and a laboratory focusing on developing ultra-efficient solar cells and to pursue an academic career as a faculty member. The Turkish researcher also plans to further develop his “INPERSPACE” project, which focuses on meeting the sharply increasing demand for space-grade photovoltaics (PVs) in the “new space era.”
The recent privatization of the space industry has led to dramatic reductions in rocket launch costs, leading to cost-efficient high-energy-density PVs becoming increasingly important in the new space age. According to Aydin, this change from high cost, low demand to low cost, high demand is a “paradigm shift.”
“My team will realize this goal with perovskite-based multi-junction tandem solar cells. Here the critical challenge is stabilizing them in synergistic space extremes such as high vacuum, high particle radiation and high-temperature variations. Achieving this goal will lead to several explorations in the PV field and other optoelectronic device applications.”
The magic of teamwork
Aydin received his B.Eng. degree ('10) from Selçuk University, Konya, Turkey. He completed his M.Sc. ('12) and Ph.D. ('16) at TOBB University of Economics and Technology, Turkey. Over the last two-and-a-half years, he has been working as a research scientist in Professor Stefaan De Wolf’s KAUST Photovoltaics Laboratory (KPV-Lab).
In his first few years at the University, Aydin’s motivation was to make highly efficient solar cells to demonstrate the potential of the perovskite-based tandem solar cells technology. Tandem solar cells can generate more power than classical single-junction solar cells by employing two or more absorber semiconductors to capture the different portions of the solar spectrum. These cells can create more power in a single cell than when working alone.
His recent research has focused on other critical aspects to realize tandem solar cells as a “feasible” technology, in particular, the long-term operational stability and industrialization aspects. Aydin added: “Today, we are convinced that perovskite-based tandem solar cells are highly efficient photovoltaic technologies. Demonstrating their long-term operational stabilities is the remaining roadblock to scaling this technology.”
“My journey at KAUST started in 2016 when I wrote to Prof. De Wolf stating my interest in working on high-efficiency perovskite-silicon tandem solar cells, and our research interests overlapped perfectly. Consequently, I joined KAUST as a postdoctoral researcher and became the first member of the KPV-Lab after Stefaan and contributed to the team’s establishment.
“Today, we are making tandem solar cells utilizing perovskite solar cells stacked on silicon solar cells with more than 30% efficiency, which is almost >8% higher (absolute) than individual silicon cells. With the achievements within of last six years, today the KPV-Lab is regarded as one of the leading research teams in perovskite/silicon tandem solar cells,” he emphasized.
Aydin considers himself fortunate to be part of the KAUST community. He credits the multidisciplinary working environment of the KSC for changing how he views scientific problems and the “magic power” of teamwork.
“Thanks to my time in the KSC, I now see photovoltaics as a truly interdisciplinary topic. At KAUST, I have had the opportunity to expand my global network, collaborate with the world’s leading researchers and universities and reap the benefits of living in a truly diverse community.
“My long-term goal is to develop realistic ultra-efficient photovoltaics for the dynamically changing needs of humankind. In the future, I want to supervise students and postdocs who can be peers and colleagues, individuals who can create an impact for a sustainable future,” he concluded.