Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Topic: Comment

Developing the Next Generation of Solar Cells at Oxford PV

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📥  Case Studies, Comment, Internships & visits

Since January I’ve been working with scientists and engineers at Oxford Photovoltaics, a start-up company spun out from Oxford University research that aims to scale up and commercialise perovskite solar cells (so named for the crystal structure of the absorber material).

Solar_cells_oli

Perovskite cells have obtained similar efficiencies to established solar cell technologies like silicon, but are thinner, cheaper and easier to make. They can also be engineered to absorb a different part of the visible solar spectrum than silicon and so be integrated straight on top of silicon cells to make a tandem device that is more efficient than either component on its own.

Instability has been a major problem to solve for perovskite cells, but the research community has made rapid progress on designing more stable devices since they were first reported just a few years ago.

How did I identify this placement?

Basically by speaking to people! I met engineers from Oxford PV at a conference in Swansea and asked if they’d consider hosting a placement student. An interview and a few logistical matters later it was somehow already time to begin.

What were the key differences to working in an academic setting?

The pressures definitely feel different to academia. At University you want to explore research questions in depth and preferably be the first person to publish and tell the world about your science, while in industry everything is kept under wraps. You have to focus on quickly delivering the commercial aspects of the research, even if it means leaving interesting tangential questions unanswered, since the commercial competition is fierce.

What would I recommend for students thinking about an internship?

Absolutely go for one! Be careful that both you and the host organisation know what to expect, bring energy and enthusiasm to the role and it’s a real chance to learn a lot in a different environment, potentially outside your comfort zone. Three months is not a lot of time to execute a project in a new setting, so I had to quickly get up to speed with procedures and equipment. The result is that I’ve had a fantastic time, learnt a huge amount both scientifically and about how things are done in a start-up company and met many people working on making a promising new renewable energy technology into a commercial reality.


Oli is studying towards his PhD on 'Optimizing energy harvesting processes in metal halide photovoltaics' with Professor Mark Weller and Professor Chris Bowen.

 

7 Reasons to Experiment Abroad

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📥  Comment, Internships & visits

My PhD focusses on improving materials for solar cells. One of the ways we can do this is by understanding more about their fundamental structure. So, in the last days of January I headed out to the Institute Laue-Langevin (or ILL) in Grenoble, where we can use neutrons to peer into the crystal structure of solar cell materials.

As it was my first trip to the ILL I spent my time observing and being trained on how to run the experiment. Although, reflecting on my trip afterwards, how to experiment with neutrons wasn’t the only thing I came away learning. Here are my 7 reasons to experiment abroad:

1) You get to work in places like this; The ILL (Institut Laue-Langevin) a world leading neutron scattering facility...

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2) … and learn cutting edge experimental techniques first hand.

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3) Your coffee breaks look like this.

4) When you set off a 30 hour scattering experiment you have time to go to places with a view like this (the Bastille in Grenoble)….

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5) … and get American tourists to take pictures of you in front of mountains.

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6) Not forgetting the chance for Instagram photos like this.

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7) Then leaving after a week having had a crash course in a new experimental technique, a chance to practice another language and mountains of all important data.

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Bethan is working on her PhD project: 'Structure, spectroscopy and photoelectrochemistry of photovoltaic materials' with Professor Mark Weller, Dr Daniel Wolversonand and Dr Laurie Peter.

 

Meet our Cohort 2016

  

📥  Case Studies, Comment

19 students, all passionate about sustainable chemical technologies, joined the CSCT in September this year. The following post is designed by Alison Ryder and Megan Stalker to sum up who they are, their different backgrounds and reasons for joining the Centre. 



Interested in joining us next year?
Applications are now open: www.bath.ac.uk/csct/cdt

 

Spot the Physicist: The Secret Life of a Physicist in Chemistry

📥  Comment, Secret Life Blogs

Our anonymous Physicist shares snippets of their life in the Chemistry labs.


What do you think of when you hear the word Physicist? What do you think of when you hear the word Chemist? Do you think of two very different people? Do you think of men (…hang on I won’t go there).

In many areas of research there is such an overlap between different areas of science that, often, the boundary between different disciplines becomes blurred. In fact, huge leaps in scientific understanding can be made by taking advantage of cross disciplinary work, but what does this mean for the lowly PhD student? Apart from getting that all important step count up on the iPhone by running between departments, it also means venturing where few physicists have dared venture before, the chemistry labs. On first inspection I found myself surprised by the number of things in one room that could kill me. “Don’t breath that in it’ll suffocate you, don’t spill that it’ll burn off your hand, don’t put that in that it’ll explode,” were just some of the first snippets of advice on entering the lab. So, with my nerves calmed, I promptly started work.

Through my time working I became acutely aware of the ‘learning curve’ I was on (shown Figure 1). The period of time where you learn so much about your new lab that your confidence level takes a little while to catch up.  The same period of time where I would probably be surprised that I’d actually managed to make sodium chloride by reacting together sodium and chloride. The same period where, when I was told I would be working with seven molar acid I thought “seven, that’s a small number”.

Figure 1: A journey into the unknown

Of course there’s the language, physics speaks the language of maths.  Does a page full of equations scare you? Well a page full of words scares a physicist. All of a sudden I was thrown into a world of mechanisms, and schlenks, and rotavaps, not to even start on all the solvent acronyms; people might as well have been speaking Russian (why are there arrows everywhere?!). I never thought I’d find myself longing to solve a good time dependent Schrodinger equation, but sometimes a full page of complex mathematics does wonders for the soul.

Despite the lab’s best efforts, I find myself still alive to tell this tale, not only that, but advocating the importance of more scientists leaving the comfort of their familiar lab for an unfamiliar one, learning new skills and becoming rounded researchers able to tackle almost any problem. If you can’t tackle it, working across departments will almost certainly mean you know someone that can.

For now I have to remember not to put water into acid, or was it acid into water……

 

Hybrid Organic Photovoltaics Conference, Swansea, 2016

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📥  Comment, Seminars & Conferences

This post was contributed by Oli Weber following his attendance at the Hybrid Organic Photovoltaics Conference (28 June - 1 July 2016).


Recently Dom Ferdani (cohort ’14) and I took a trip to the south coast of Wales to attend the 2016 Hybrid Organic Photovoltaics Conference (HOPV 16). The venue was Swansea’s brand new Bay Campus, a huge new development of university buildings sited right by the beach of Swansea Bay. On the first conference day we were met by serious weather blowing in from the sea, leaving delegates from warmer climes wondering what manner of people could be mad enough to inhabit such a cold, damp land. Bay Campus is also the new home to SPECIFIC, the conference hosts, whose mandate is to span the space between academia and industry to develop materials that turn buildings into power stations using functional coatings. Building integrated photovoltaics (BIPVs) are one of the families of technologies developed at SPECIFIC. These rely on thin, lightweight, flexible designs and manufacturing methods, such as printing, that scale up well. Organic semiconductors, dye sensitised solar cells, CIGS and CZTS are all under research and development, however the technology that has come to dominate the research focus for this conference is hybrid perovskite solar cells.

Dom and Oli in Swansea

Dom and Oli in Swansea

Hybrid perovskites combine the properties of some of the highest quality known semiconductors, such as GaAs, with the solution processability of organic materials. This means that the solar cells could be manufactured at low cost, while still displaying the high efficiency of the best inorganic thin films. Unfortunately the hybrid perovskites are not very chemically stable and are easily attacked and degraded by water. Some of the typical device layers used in perovskite cells may also be contributing to the degradation, so it is still difficult to assess whether these materials will be intrinsically stable, over a 25 year lifetime, if they are properly encapsulated as protection from the environment. It was encouraging to see stability data discussed during the research presentations, particularly in the talk by Professor Mike McGehee of Stanford, whose group is developing semi-transparent perovskite top cells to include directly above standard silicon modules to make a more efficient tandem stack.

Other highlights for me personally were the advanced printing techniques run by SPECIFIC researchers on the day before the conference commenced, when we learnt about the pitfalls that await between laboratory scale work and development of cells suitable for bulk manufacturing at large scale. Professor Laura Herz of Oxford Physics gave an excellent presentation on the amount that can be learnt about charge carrier dynamics within perovskite semiconductors using terahertz photoconductivity and photoluminescence measurements. From the University of Bath, Professor Aron Walsh and Dr Petra Cameron both presented recent research results.

Overshadowing the whole conference was the spectre of Brexit. Many people had learnt the referendum result just before setting out to Swansea. Swansea is one of the areas of the UK that voted to leave despite receiving extensive regeneration funding from the EU; SPECIFIC itself is part EU funded. The research groups present were drawn from diverse international backgrounds and many of the research collaborations, already in progress or spawned during the conference, span the EU and further afield. One thing for certain is that the scientific community will continue to find ways to maintain their international networks and friendships whatever the political landscape. From my point of view (and that of many I spoke to) it’s frankly embarrassing that the referendum campaign was fought, won and lost on the basis of fear, lies and bigotry, drowning out all vestiges of the rational debate scientists thrive on. For a country priding itself on freedom and enterprise, we cannot claim to have a healthy political or media culture.

Sitting on the terrace of the conference hall, the beach ahead of me, it is impossible to ignore the juxtaposition of frenetic scientific activity behind me, as brilliant people from every part of the world work to develop clean energy sources for the future, with the EU and Welsh flags taut in the sea breeze just in front and, visible further along the coast, Port Talbot steelworks, in the news as 4,000 people wait on tenterhooks to hear if their livelihoods will disappear. Swansea is an area already hard hit by disappearing traditional industries, on the sharp end of globalised trade. The referendum vote has already delayed and could wreck buyout bids to retain the steelworks, with 69% of Welsh steel exported to the EU. Projects like SPECIFIC serve a dual purpose, for research and as attempts to sow new seeds of industrial activity for clean technologies for the twenty first century. If and when the UK regains political leadership, it will be up to UK government to prove it can support these activities as well as the EU did, or risk watching top researchers and research, as on display at HOPV, move elsewhere.


Oli is Cohort '13 of the CSCT, studying towards his PhD on "Optimizing energy harvesting processes in metal halide photovoltaics" with Professor Mark Weller and Professor Chris Bowen.

 

Beyond the Lab: Developing your Industrial Biotechnology Career

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📥  Comment, Seminars & Conferences

The following blog is written by Tristan Smith.


CSCT students Felix (Cohort 2015), Sonia (Cohort 14), Tristan (Cohort 13) and alumnus Anyela (Cohort 10) attended a two day training workshop run by the BBSRC NIBB Networks. It was an opportunity for current students, post-doc and early career researchers to learn about the jobs and careers that are available in Industrial Biotechnology (IB). But also, that many companies that use IB aren’t immediately obvious and there is a large drive to create connections with these unknown stakeholders and academia for future collaborations. Instead of reviewing all that was discussed over the two days, I will try and distil it down to a few key messages:

  • Industrial Biotechnology is one of the oldest technologies in human activity and as such has been applied in a wide range of fields from food production to the manufacture of explosives. The take home message of many talks was that IB is not an industrial sector but an enabling technology that is allowing the development of new sustainable technologies, and therefore when looking for careers as a biotechnologist you are unlikely to find yourself working for an enzyme production company (although those jobs exist), but as a member of a small team in a much larger setting helping to apply IB to their processes. Many of these companies do not advertise the fact that they use IB, and that connections made through networks like the NIBs, KTN-UK are vital to finding jobs.
  • Communication! A successful industrial biotechnologist needs to be a master linguist, able to speak the languages of engineering through to corporate finance. Even if your role is developing novel organism at a purely molecular biology lab, you might be the only such individual or part of a very small team in that company. Therefore, you will have to understand every stage of your product's scale-up at the engineering level. Engineers and technical staff will need to be able to understand your process so that it can be up-scaled and developed further. The sales team need to be able to understand and sell the benefits of your technology to the customer. The finance team need to understand the cost savings or profit potential of every material or piece of equipment before the company purchase it. Whilst an industrial biotechnologist must be key team player, all these challenges creates new opportunities for specialist process bioengineers, technical sales staff and other jobs that are improved by having a scientist in these roles.
  • Data! Data! Data! Modern DNA sequencing and computer technologies means that the creation of new data is occurring at an unmanageable rate, and that there is shortage of individuals with data driven research capabilities. Bioinformaticians or computational scientist, with the ability to process and use this every expanding pool of information are going to be more sought after in the future. The demand is so high that it has been fed back into the funding bodies who are now starting specific degrees, but that means anyone who has the skills now, before all these new training degrees bear fruit will be in high demand.

I hope that this was useful, I think we all left feeling much more hopeful about the range of potential jobs on offer outside of academia. One great aspect was a range of talks from companies ranging in the size from small start-ups such as Oxford Biotrans to large multinational corporations such as Croda, who all rely on IB but because of the size and scope of these companies, the working environments and cultures are as different between themselves as industry is to academia. The point being that if you want to work in industry there is likely an environment that will suit your skills and personality.


Tristan is in his third year in the CSCT working towards his PhD on 'Sustainable production of 2-phenylethanol from Metschnikowia pulcherrima' with Dr Daniel Henk and Dr Chris Chuck.

Photos: Winter Graduation 2015 and Celebrations

  

📥  Comment, Events

A big congratulations to our MRes graduates and PhD students (Rebecca Bamford, Anyela Ramirez Canon and Duygu Celebi). Following the Graduation Ceremony at the Bath Assembly Rooms on 9 December 2015, our newest cohort 2015 threw a celebratory party for all. I'll let the photos tell the story:

MRes Graduates of the CSCT

CSCT MRes Graduates 2015

See all photos from the Graduation Ceremony and the after-party.