Buy-back time using organic solar cells shorter, says polymer scientist Asha SK – The Indian Express

Polymer scientist Asha SK wants her laboratory in Pune to be involved in developing organic polymers and their raw materials that will both find effective and environment-friendly use after reaching end-of-life use.
More often than not, many existing polymers and chemical compounds after desired use, turn nuisance environmentally and they end up at landfill sites or are subject to other harmful waste disposal methods.
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Asha is the recent recipient of the Science and Engineering Research Board (SERB) Power Fellows 2022 presented by the Department of Science and Technology (DST). She bagged the fellowship for a proposed project involving the development and scaling-up of p-Conjugated Polymers for Energy Storage applications using a now in-house synthesis facility at the CSIR-NCL.
p-Conjugated Polymers are organic polymers with alternate single and double bond structures in their backbone. Due to this structure, it possesses unique electronic properties like conduction of charges, which is not possible with conventional polymers. Therefore, they find application in optoelectronic devices like light-emitting diodes, organic solar cells and more.
With growing emphasis on renewable energy in India and the world over, and the growing penetration of solar energy-based services—vehicles, roof-top solar panels, water heaters and others—harnessing solar energy and widening their scope of applications are in focus.
According to the Union Ministry of New and Renewable Energy, India stood fifth globally in solar power deployment. Since 2014, India’s solar power capacity generation grew 11 times and rose to 30 Giga Watts as of July 2019. In 2015, India and France announced the launch of the International Solar Alliance (ISA) aimed at providing solar energy-based solutions, energy access and security while attempting to cut carbon emissions thus combating climate change. Presently, 101 countries are signatories to the ISA Framework Agreement.
As such, Asha’s area of solar photovoltaics is only beginning to see a boom and holds the potential to grow further in the coming years. “While silicon-based solar cells—commonly installed in the roof-top solar panel setups—may be more efficient, the challenge remains in sourcing raw materials for its making. To date, they get imported thus making them expensive. In comparison, organic solar cells are less expensive, can be installed on vertical and other surfaces, are thin and lighter to handle,” says Asha, chair of the Polymer Science and Engineering Division at CSIR-National Chemical Laboratory (NCL).
But the biggest advantage of using organic solar cells made from naphthalene-based polymers, which her lab is involved in, is the shorter payback time. “If the payback scheme using the silicon-based solar cells takes up to a few years, the same can be accomplished within a few months in the case of the organic solar cells,” assures Asha.
Currently, the lab is pursuing research to understand the numerous parameters aimed at making the organic polymer more efficient and contributing to further cost reduction. This, alongside finding a desi way to source raw materials. With awareness about the availability of the green-solar cells continuing to remain limited, Asha is hopeful that more industries would come forward and invest in its commercialisation. “This alone will lead to a reduction in costs, find wider applications and make sourcing of raw materials easier,” she says.
In December 2018, NCL established a Centre of Excellence (CoE) for 3D printing and additive manufacturing. But not much substantive work with the industry has taken shape, partly due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “3D printing can have a wide range of applications for making medical implants, in the auto industry and others. It can best be used where materials need to be turned into highly complex shapes,” says Asha, who now heads the CoE, and adds, “In India, 3D printing has largely remained as mere display models and is yet to get into its functional roles.”
Hailing from Thiruvananthapuram in Kerala and being among the top rank holders at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, Asha’s career path goes alongside her husband Professor M Jayakannan, a professor in the Chemistry department at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research (IISER), Pune.
After completing their PhDs at the Indian Institute of Science, they landed their first jobs at General Electric (GE) in Bengaluru. “In the industry, one learns to work in a time-bound manner. The industry, where safety is given utmost importance, trained me with skills that came in handy later in my career,” she recalls.

Being a full-time scientist is a demanding job, she says, and support from the family has been her biggest boon. “Pursuing doctoral studies requires perseverance and patience. Science is a high demand job,” shares Asha.
The pandemic, she found, brought some much-needed respect and recognition to the scientific community – which has been striving on all fronts from vaccines drugs, safety gear and creating awareness about the virus. “But recognition for women scientists and awards still remain few,” feels Asha, who hopes to inspire young scientists.
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