Solar panels need sunlight — unless a North Dakota chemist can make them run on the moon

Recently funded research by a North Dakota State University professor is looking for ways to make solar panels run in low-light conditions, on cloudy days, at night or even under water.

Workers setting up solar panels
Coulee Luger, Wes Davis and Kyle Leake from Lightspring in Bismarck install solar panels on the roof of the new PRx Performance building in north Fargo on Thursday, July 22, 2021.
David Samson / The Forum

BISMARCK — When it comes to solar panels, you only get electricity when the sun is shining.

Or at least, that’s always been their biggest weakness.

Recently funded research underway at North Dakota State University is looking for ways to flip that script so that the base-level components of solar panels could generate energy on cloudy days, at night or even underwater.

“I often refer to these as potentially not solar cells, but lunar cells,” said Philip Boudjouk, an NDSU chemistry professor who is leading the research effort.

Boudjouk’s work on the development of low-light solar cells recently received $2.5 million through the U.S. Naval Research Lab.


If it succeeds, the invention could have a wide array of applications of interest to the U.S. military, including powering anything from drones to the face of a GPS watch. Many military operations don’t have the luxury of operating in broad daylight, underscoring the utility of portable power generation that works when it’s mostly dark out.

But Boudjouk said the uses for his research could extend well beyond the military, possibly having big implications for the power generation needed to run the electric grid if solar developers are able to scale his findings upward.

While renewable resources like wind and solar account for a growing portion of the country’s energy mix, they can only feed power into the system when the conditions are right — on windy or sunny days.

Solving that fundamental problem has become a primary goal for those looking to build a clean energy grid, with billions of dollars now pouring into the research and development of more affordable, longer lasting battery storage that could save renewably generated power until its needed.

And though the solar cells that Boudjouk is looking to develop wouldn't generate energy at comparable levels to what today's panels can produce on a sunny afternoon, the chemist noted that even a 10% increase in their light absorption could have “a tremendous impact” on solar energy’s potential contributions to power generation and other electricity uses

The $2.5 million recently awarded for Boudjouk’s research covers a wide array of processes, he said, but among them he is looking to develop silicon-based products as well as additive dyes that could enhance the capacity of current solar technology to absorb energy even when light conditions are far from optimal.

The chemist’s work in silicon science dates back nearly 50 years. His research team has produced 38 patents, 22 of which have been licensed to the private sector, he said.

Previous funding for the research came in when U.S. Sen. John Hoeven was governor of North Dakota, and the second-term Republican senator helped to secure the recent injection from the Office of Naval Research.


“By developing more efficient solar cells, (drones) and other assets will be able to operate for longer and in more environments,” Hoeven said in a recent announcement about the award. “Further, this research has the potential to significantly reduce the cost of producing these materials, helping taxpayer dollars go further.”

Boudjouk said he and his team are making headway in the development of the baseline chemicals for their solar cells, and he’s hopeful that they will begin running serious experiments by late spring.

“We have a long history of developing the basic concepts, so now it looks like an overnight success,” he said.

Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at

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