If there’s one thing Shola Wylie ’15 could point to as the catalyst that sparked her interest in Alexi Arango’s physics laboratory, she’d tell you it was Homer Simpson.
Well, maybe not Homer Simpson exactly. Rather, it was a familiar scene from the long-running animated show — when Homer Simpson or other Springfield Nuclear Power Plant workers use gloveboxes to handle materials — that made her want to check out the three-glovebox setup in Arango’s Shattuck Hall lab.
“I saw his lab and it looked really cool,” said Wylie, a physics major from Memphis, Tenn. “I really wanted to use those machines and figure out what’s going on.”
It was a moment of curiosity that paid off. Quite literally.
After two years of studying the physics of organic solar cells with Arango and other students, Wylie applied for and won the prestigious Barry Goldwater Scholarship. Named after the Arizona senator, the award is widely considered to be one of the most competitive U.S. awards for undergraduates studying the sciences.
According to the Barry Goldwater Scholarship and Excellence in Education Foundation, more than 1,100 students applied for the 2014 award, which carries up to a $7,500 prize. Wylie, who was supported in her application by Arango and Mount Holyoke professors Juan Burciaga and Dylan Shepardson, is one of 283 students who received the honor.
The scholarship is given to students who show exceptional promise in the fields of mathematics, engineering, and the sciences. In addition to considering academic merit, judges also weigh nominees by assessing their potential in contributing significantly to their field.
The research Wylie conducts focuses specifically on examining the origin of an intrinsic electrical field found in organic photovoltaic devices, or solar cells. In order to understand its impact, though, you first have to consider what keeps organic solar cells from being widely used.
Right now, most solar cells are made from inorganic materials like silicon, which make them fragile and inflexible. Manufacturing them from organic materials provides a solution to those problems, but there is one drawback: their power conversion efficiency — the ratio at which solar energy can be converted into usable electricity — is lower than that of inorganic solar cells, and it’s what keeps them from being competitive in the marketplace.
This is where the notion of an intrinsic electrical field comes in. Arango and his students suspect that the low voltage produced by the cell can be increased — an important step toward higher power conversion efficiency — and the only way to know for sure is by using tools like electromodulation spectroscopy to try and discover what is happening at a fundamental level.
“We’re trying to understand how the basic laws of physics apply to these cells,” Arango said. “The mystery is based on the fact that you can’t take everything apart at the molecular level. We have to use this specialized technique in order to measure things and, in a way, peer inside the cell.”
The implications of the research are staggering. Aside from creating knowledge about the basic mechanics of organic photovoltaic devices, the work is also setting the stage for more significant, widespread use of solar energy.
“It’s looking 10, 20 years in the future,” Arango said, “when we really have this ubiquitous solar energy and we want to look for ways to install these things efficiently, easily, and everywhere. That’s where lightweight, flexible, and easily manufacturable solar panels come into play.”
On a personal level for Wylie, winning the Goldwater Scholarship brought the idea one step closer to reality.
“It makes it that much more tangible, that people believe I can pull this off and that I can do this,” she said. “It’s a nice feeling. Now I have more people who believe that I can actually solve this problem and figure out what’s going on.”
—By John Martins