March 27, 2014

Researchers Use Opal Structure to Improve Thin Film Solar Cell Efficiency

A new approach to solar cell design is raising hopes for lower cost electricity derived from solar energy.  Researchers from Purdue University’s School of Electrical and Computer Engineering and Birck Nanotechnology Center have devised a 3-D synthetic crystal that absorbs, retains and utilizes sunlight more effectively than traditional thin-film cells

Conventional solar cells are made of single crystal silicon wafers, but those made of thin-film silicon cells are 100 times less expensive. Unfortunately, the thin-film cells’ material and structure allows sunlight to enter and then quickly reflected back out of the cell, making them much less efficient.  Perdue researchers have found that by introducing synthetic crystals with an “inverse opal structure” into the construction of the thin-film cells, that once sunlight enters the cell it is diffracted and the opal structure traps light for longer periods of time, increasing the probability of converting the solar power to electrical energy.   

According to Peter Bermel, an assistant professor participating in the study, the goal of the research was to determine whether introducing the 3-D photonic crystals into crystalline silicon solar cells would make them more efficient while maintaining their lower cost. “The question is, can we make up that lower efficiency by introducing new approaches to light trapping for thin film solar cells? Can we combine low cost and high performance?”

The study showed that the opal structure increases the thin-film cells’ efficiency and absorption of near-infrared light by approximately 10%, and that with more research greater efficiency may be gained.

Though solar cells were originally designed to be made of thick single crystal silicon wafers, the cost was prohibitive for widespread use, so the multicrystalline and thin-film silicon solar cells have gained in popularity. Unfortunately, their efficiency in absorbing near-infrared light is not optimal. According to Bermel, “Light in the near-infrared range is important because there is a lot of solar energy in that wavelength range and also because silicon can convert near infrared light to energy if it can absorb it, but thin films don’t fully absorb it.”

In order to increase the thin film’s ability to absorb light, the researchers used a process known as meniscus-driven self-assembly to create a synthetic opal structure that is made up of hollow spheres of air that are encased in silicon. Much like natural opals, which diffract different wavelengths of light at different angles, the synthetic opal structure bounces the near-infrared light around internally, lengthening the solar cell’s access to the energy from the light.

Since 1985, The CECON Group has been placing experts in over 200 scientific disciplines. CECON Consultants include energy experts, renewable energy consultantsengineering  experts,  and films and coatings experts.

March 24, 2014

Yoga Mat Chemical in Bread: Is it really hazardous? CECON Chemist comments on the toxicity of ADA.

Several weeks ago, concern was raised by environmental groups about a chemical called  Azodicarbonamide, (ADA) a chemical foaming agent that is used in some plastics (like yoga mats) being a common additive in commercially prepared bread. ADA added to bread flour shortens the processing time for commercial bakers by making the dough rise more quickly.

We asked Dr. Stanley Tocker, a chemist with The CECON Group, what he thought of the toxicity of this chemical.

Dr. Tocker reported that this chemical has not been widely tested, but he did not see any supported data on toxicity. While there is lots of chatter about the dangers of this chemical, it appears to be safe at the concentrations (40-50 parts per billion) in commercial products.

According to Dr. Tocker, when ADA is cooked, it breaks down, leaving behind miniscule residues of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, ammonia, and carbon dioxide. Such levels of these chemicals have not been found to be harmful to humans.

So, for now, until solid evidence is presented, you don’t need to worry when eating your sandwich rolls in restaurants!

Dr. Stanley Tocker, Executive Vice President of The CECON Group received his Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry from Florida State University. Dr. Tocker has 40 years of experience in organic synthesis, polymers, pesticides, formulations, patent strategy and chemical products liability. He has served as a technical expert witness on many occasions.

March 21, 2014

Pharma Outsourcing Trends, Part 1: Why is Pharma Outsourcing on the Rise?

A question we hear at The CECON Group is “Why are pharmaceutical companies increasingly seeing the need to hire outside consultants?”

We approached Dr. Barry Bowen, CECON Vice President and Program Manager, a consultant with more than 35 years of experience in business leadership, human resources, and technical project management.  He offered his observations regarding the areas where companies are using outside consultants in the pharmaceutical industry.

Dr. Bowen has noticed the following trend in client needs:
  • ·       Temporary quality control management;
  • ·       Audit and reporting expertise;
  • ·       CRO/CMO selection and compliance/audit functions;
  • ·       New molecule research, including literature and lab work;
  • ·       Assistance with strategy for new molecule clinical studies for future FDA acceptance;
  • ·       FDA compliance of internal software and computer systems.

We asked Dr. Bowen what was driving these trends.
“These trends are partly due to pharma’s evolving business strategy to gain more growth and more profit from existing product portfolios, rather than high emphasis on filling the pipeline with potential winners.  This business model may mean purchasing more research, ingredients or products, all of which must be vetted and tracked for quality and compliance.  It may mean protecting intellectual property more vigorously or simply paying more attention to efficiencies of established internal systems. Engaging career pharma specialists, consultants, and expert witnesses for relatively short periods of time, can often be faster and better investments than waiting for new employees to mature.”

A long-time CECON pharmaceutical consultant and former FDA Science Branch Director has noticed another trend: Outsourcing of production of pharmaceuticals themselves.   He has observed: 
“Pharma production outsourcing occurs because it is cheaper than making it in-house. Labor rates are lower and companies avoid capital expenditures on new (brand new or replacement) equipment. However, firms are starting to see that they have a false economy. There are many cases of API (active pharmaceutical ingredient) contamination, and out-of-specification final products occurring.  This is because "you get what you pay for." Buy cheap and get cheap. Pharma executives are beginning to realize this.

Firms are finding out that foreign made products can be problematic.  FDA directed company recalls of finished products are occurring.  FDA 483s and Warning Letters are being issued. The challenge is to select a quality company when outsourcing, which can cost more and take more time.

My recommendation is that if you contract out, do it in the United States. It will cost more, but you can visit facilities and inspect them readily yourself, thereby avoiding problems.  I see that happening now, yet slowly; outsourcing continues, but it will be with domestic firms.”

In the March 3, 2014 issue of Chemical and Engineering News, a series of case studies is detailed in the article  “From the Lab to the Production Plant.”  The article’s author, Michael McCoy, notes that “Often innovation occurs at small entrepreneurial firms. Typically started by visionary men and women, these companies have great ideas and skilled scientists, but they rarely have the resources to make their molecules at large enough scale or with consistent enough manufacturing processes for use in clinical trials.” Production is then outsourced to contract manufacturers.

  Have you noticed any additional trends in outsourcing?

Founded in 1985, The CECON Group specializes in providing science and engineering consultants and expert witnesses. Consultants in their global network typically have more than 25 years of experience; CECON offers consultants in more than 200 disciplines, including pharmaceutical development and regulatory compliance, chemical processing and safety, biotechnology, medical devices, nanotechnology, and polymers and coatings.

For details, visit or call 888-263-8000.

March 13, 2014

Adhesive Bonding of Sub-miniature Electronic Devices to Dissimilar Materials: A Case Study

Our CECON Group consultants, leaders in their fields, are always pushing boundaries. In this blog, one of our chemistry consultants , a Coatings, Adhesives, and Laminates Expert, writes about a recent case study. 

Could an alternative adhesive be found which would bond two dissimilar materials for a longer service life?

At issue in the 26-week project summarized here were adhesive bonds used to attach sub-miniature electronic microphones to plastic fixtures that allow the assembly to be incorporated into application-specific packaging. Specifically, the microphone cases were made of stainless steel and the mounting fixtures were glass-filled nylon. These devices are used in actual service for many years and are continuously exposed to high humidity and a temperature of ~95 °F. The goal of the project was to identify alternative adhesives that would significantly enhance bond strengths and be less susceptible to humidity. The result would be longer service life in current applications and development of new applications.

Selections of candidate alternative adhesives were based on three basic technical issues: 
  1. The bonded assembly comprises one adhesive layer and two interfaces that must be resistance to temperature and humidity.
  2. Application of adhesives during the bonding process would be done manually.
  3. Due to the heat sensitivity of the electronic device itself, thermal curing of an adhesive would be limited to about 150 °F. The two interfaces noted in item #1 are the metal-to-adhesive and the Nylon-to-adhesive interfaces.

During routine quality control testing to measure adhesive bond strengths, bonded assemblies were exposed to elevated temperature and humidity for a pre-determined period. This was followed by mechanical testing to determine the force required to de-bond the assembly. In many applications, the minimum allowable strength is 10 newtons force.

Baseline evaluations of alternative adhesives with potential for enhanced bond strengths were an essential component of this project in its initial phase. Literature reviews and technical discussions with suppliers who specialize in adhesives for joining dissimilar materials and for applications involving severe environments were used to select candidates for the study. Special attention was given to materials used in the very demanding applications found in micro-electronics, medical devices, and dental procedures.

In its first phase, the scope of the project purposefully allowed for “added risk” in making selections of materials for bond strength enhancements that could be implemented in the very near term. The strategy was to evaluate numerous good candidates—knowing that many would be disqualified—so that near-term solutions could be identified.

Since 1985, The CECON Group has been placing experts in over 200 scientific disciplines. CECON consultants include pharmaceutical consultants, clinical trials experts, and chemistry experts.

March 10, 2014

Advancements in Chemical Processes Translate Across Applications

One of the key benefits of bringing a consultant on board is that you gain the benefit of an outside perspective that can stretch your own thinking. In this article, one of CECON’s consultants, a chemical engineer specializing in process design, blogs about leveraging advancements in chemical processes across different applications to improve efficiencies and/or lower costs.

Many of today’s chemical processes still use basic operations developed decades ago. But in the past five decades, the understanding and catalysis of chemical processes has improved dramatically. This applies to polymers (plastics) as well as liquid and solid chemicals. In one research study, projected process efficiencies and operating costs were improved dramatically by developing new catalysts.

For example, one of the greatest advances in manufacturing chemical polymers has been a fluidization process for polyolefins such as polyethylene and polypropylene. Pioneered by Union Carbide (now DOW), the process dubbed UNIPOL has taken over 40% of the world’s production in a span of 25 years. Why? Because the process requires only one half of the capital investment and one third of the operating cost of the former high-pressure processes (30,000 psi).

The typical fluidization process employs a solid catalyst which enables a reactant in vapor form to form a final product. In the case of polyolefins, the catalyst is embedded in the surface of the polymer formed and becomes part of the product.

 In other fluid bed processes, the catalyst is separated from the product (vapor) and regenerated and recycled to the fluid bed. In all these cases, the reactant is in gaseous form to act as the fluidization medium as well as a reactant. Formaldehyde, a major raw material for resins that bond plywood and other wood products, is made in such a system by a patented process (DuPont).

Can this technology be applied to other products? CECON’s experts can help answer this question.

How a major pollutant was converted to salable products
Until the mid 1990s, paper mills vented methanol-rich streams to the atmosphere. When this was finally recognized as a major industrial pollutant in the U.S. by the EPA, the pulp and paper industry was ordered to severely reduce their methanol emissions.

The industry resorted to combustion in waste heat boilers or biological digestion in waste treatment ponds. The methanol was converted to carbon dioxide, adding to the amount in the atmosphere.

One pulp and paper company explored the option of converting this waste methanol stream into useful chemical products that could be sold on the open market at values higher than the fuel value of the methanol. This was accomplished by designating the research work to a qualified university. A successful pilot plant confirmed the new process as viable.

Similar programs can be achieved for other contaminants given the right chemistry and experience.

Since 1985, The CECON Group has been placing experts in over 200 scientific disciplines. CECON Consultants include pharmaceutical consultants, clinical trials experts, and chemistry experts.