During my PhD I was very fortunate to do a research collaboration placement at the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) in Colorado, USA. My placement took place over the course of autumn and winter so I certainly had some interesting cycling conditions during a Colorado winter! Sunglasses were however very much a vital part of my winter attire throughout. With around 300 days of sunshine a year, Colorado is a very promising part of the world for a solar power enthusiast such as myself!
I felt particularly fortunate to be doing a research placement at NREL since my research for new absorber materials for solar cells is completely computational; simulating rather than synthesising materials. Working in the ‘Solar Energy Research Facility’ was a great opportunity to talk with experimental solar cell researchers, visit labs and get more of an appreciation for the practical considerations when new materials are being synthesised for solar cells and for incorporating those materials into a full solar cell device. It was also very exciting for me to be surrounded by solar cell technologies at NREL!
During my placement I was given access to the high-performance computing (HPC) facility at NREL called Peregrine (photo above). As well as being pretty good-looking (for a supercomputer at least!), the cooling system is also a particularly energy-efficient one. A lot of the buildings at NREL are designed with efficiency in mind. The whole site very much fitted with the mission and dedication to renewable energy with hybrid vehicles to shuttle staff to NREL and impressive recycling facilities. The Research Support Facility (RSF) building was a particularly impressive building. During my induction day, I found out that it is one of the most energy-efficient buildings in the world, but it was specifically designed with the intention of being replicated. Many parts of the building were made from recycled materials too such as natural gas tubes that were used as supporting beams.
During my visit, there were numerous interesting seminars that took place on the site with topics ranging from defects in batteries materials, grid-friendly integration of utility scale photovoltaic power generation and even a talk on putting solar panels in space and beaming the power back down with microwaves. And by a stroke of luck, I also happened to be in Colorado when the ‘Solar Decathlon’ was taking place in Denver. This is a competition between different universities to design energy-efficient and self-sufficient houses that utilise renewable energy technologies. Saving water was a big theme this year and I was also pretty impressed by a solar powered grill!
Whilst at NREL I benefitted greatly from interactions with both theorists (who worked on simulating new PV materials) and experimental scientists working to synthesise, characterise and fabricate solar cells all within the ‘rapid development’ research team. I found the close interaction of experiment and theory particularly informative. I’m also inclined to say that staff at NREL really know how to make the most of their weekends and the beautiful surroundings in Colorado. There’s no doubt that NREL is in a pretty inspiring place for an outdoors enthusiast, but I found the strong atmosphere of collaboration between experiment and theory at the lab to be pretty inspiring for the science too!