Physics team tackles solar cells

The physics department has adopted a novel approach to research. Rather than have each faculty member work with students in his or her area of expertise, Professors Lyle Lichty, Derin Sherman, and Kara Beauchamp have joined forces on a project where they are all relative beginners.

They decided to create and study solar cells that use the dye from raspberries to produce electricity. Such solar cells are hoped to become a much less expensive replacement for today’s photovoltaic panels. They felt the project would inspire student interest, and it met their educational criteria.

They wanted students to make something tangible and useful, not just study something given to them. They wanted the materials to be affordable and with many variants to tinker with. And they wanted to develop a team approach, with students learning from each other as well as from a variety of mentors.

The first year and a half was spent developing the process to create the solar cells and building the instruments to measure their output. Last summer, students Logan Squiers, Julia Kamenetzky, and Lucas Jorgensen were finally able to test their creations.

A bright red solar cell, coated with dye they’d squeezed from raspberries grown in Lichty’s backyard, produced a trickle of electricity almost immediately in the lab. Excited, they placed the device in the sun only to watch it bleach and die.

The faculty suggested that the students study literature on the subject. For a solid week, they read paper after paper on the topic, absorbing lessons from other labs while deepening their understanding of the science.

They discovered that many labs now use synthetic dyes with improved results. Meanwhile, the physics faculty happened to engage in a hallway conversation with chemistry Professor Charley Liberko, an expert in synthetic dyes.

Liberko’s students and lab equipment became a new resource, and the physics team is hopeful that chemistry students might officially join the effort in the near future. In the meantime, the physics students continue to read and modify the process, gaining grudging improvements. At every step, they track new findings and ideas on a large blackboard so that they can operate as a team.

“We’re not exactly on the cutting edge,” says Squiers, “but we’re still doing things that haven’t necessarily been tested before.”

Kamenetzky adds that the research has given them a much deeper experience than is available in the classroom. “In lab classes the procedure is already set up, and you know what answer you’re supposed to get,” she says. “Here we have to work hard just to get things to work … we have to take control over every aspect of the process.”