Russel Lecture: Fighting climate change with organic electronics

The researcher-entrepreneur who helped bring OLED displays to the masses envisions a future of efficient lighting and next-gen solar power.

Stephen Forrest Enlarge
Stephen Forrest. Photo by: Photo by James M Rotz/Michigan Engineering

Stephen Forrest, a U-M faculty member whose breakthroughs in semiconductors contributed to the current state-of-the-art in display technology and lighting, will give the Henry Russel Lecture on Feb. 27.

His talk, “Carbon vs. carbon dioxide: Using carbon-based (organic) electronics for a more sustainable planet,” will discuss how low-cost, organic semiconductor technology could transform electricity generation and reduce our reliance on fossil fuels.

“Possibly the greatest challenge facing mankind and the planet today is how do we slow down or stop the pace at which climate change from carbon dioxide emissions is occurring,” said Forrest, the Peter A. Franken Distinguished University Professor and the Paul G. Goebel Professor of Engineering in the College of Engineering.

The Henry Russel Lectureship is considered the university’s highest honor for senior faculty members, recognizing one faculty member each year for exceptional achievements in research, scholarship or creative endeavors, as well as an outstanding record of teaching, mentoring and service.

The award program and lecture will begin at 4:30 p.m. in the Rackham Amphitheater. A public reception will immediately follow the lecture nearby in Rackham’s Assembly Hall.

Along with the Henry Russel Lectureship, four faculty members will receive 2020 Henry Russel Awards, the university’s highest honor for faculty at the early to mid-career stages of their career. They are:

  • Carrie R. Ferrario, assistant professor of pharmacology, Medical School.
  • Xianzhe Jia, associate professor of climate and space sciences and engineering, CoE.
  • Corinna S. Schindler, associate professor of chemistry, LSA.
  • Megan E. Tompkins-Stange, assistant professor of public policy, Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy.

In addition to his primary appointment as professor of electrical engineering and computer science, Forrest holds courtesy appointments in physics, materials science and engineering, and applied physics.

“In this talk, I will discuss work on making a new generation of efficient organic solar cells that can be made transparent in the visible, yet harvest substantial solar energy in the infrared,” Forrest said.

“These ‘transparent’ solar cells can be attached as flexible films on building façades and windows, creating new opportunities for solar energy harvesting that cannot be met using conventional technologies.”

The grand scheme is a built environment in which electricity generation is as ubiquitous as energy use. But equally important, Forrest said, is the adoption of efficient lighting. He noted that lighting currently accounts for 20 percent of electricity consumption in the United States.
Forrest’s work in semiconductors maximizes the efficiency of the exchange between electrons and light, whether in a light-emitting device or a solar cell generating electricity. He is a five-time entrepreneur, perhaps most notably as co-founder of Universal Display Corp. The company’s organic LED technologies light up smartphone, smart watch and television screens.

The National Academy of Engineering named Forrest a member in 2003 — before organic LED products became commonplace, but by then he had already demonstrated his knack for designing useful devices. His compact light sensors, developed during his time at Bell Labs, operate at the ends of fiber-optic telecommunications cables to this day.

Forrest will make the case for organic electronics for solar cells and efficient lighting, contrasting them with the toxic materials and high temperature processing involved in making inorganic semiconductors from materials like silicon and gallium arsenide.

“Organic materials are inexpensive and use very little energy in their production compared with inorganic electronic materials. They are often environmentally benign and easily disposed of, and they can be deposited onto almost any surface,” he said.

Forrest has received several other honors and awards, including election to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Academy of Inventors.

With research appearing in more than 600 papers in world-leading journals, Forrest holds more than 340 U.S. patents. He has chaired or co-chaired the dissertation committees for 61 Ph.D. students and has mentored 34 postdoctoral fellows and research scientists. He joined the university in 2006 as vice president for research, a position he held until 2013.