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Science of the sun

Engineering fellowship makes dreams come true

Jeff Richards

Jeff Richards, Ph.D. candidate in Chemical Engineering

The soccer field was Jeff Richards’ first laboratory. That’s where his father would launch a toy rocket 300 feet into the sunny Akron, Ohio sky. A small parachute would deploy and the rocket would float softly to the ground with Jeff and his siblings scrambling to retrieve it, asking their dad to do it again — and to explain how it worked.

“I got exposed really early on to math, science and the outdoors because my dad was an engineer and my mom was a geologist,” says Jeff, a William and Marilyn Conner Fellow in Chemical Engineering. “It was a natural progression from that awe in the soccer field to the work I do now.”

As a Ph.D. candidate in Chemical Engineering, Jeff still looks to the sky for inspiration. He is researching ways to improve the efficiency of solar cells with fellow graduate students in the UW’s Pozzo Research Group, led by Lilo Pozzo, a tenured professor in Chemical Engineering. Jeff’s research focuses on the chemical makeup of a solar panel’s active layer, the sleek semiconductor film where the sun’s rays are converted to electricity.

Jeff's work centers on the chemical makeup of the semiconductor film where the sun's rays are converted to electricity.

Jeff’s work centers on the chemical makeup of the semiconductor film where the sun’s rays are converted to electricity.

Leading the renewable energy charge Jeff Richards’ work with solar cells is just one of the ways that the UW is leading the region in renewable energy research and technology. In December, Gov. Jay Inslee helped the UW launch the Clean Energy Institute, an interdisciplinary hub focused on solar and battery research. “Our goal is to create record-breaking solar energy efficiencies, low-cost processing and the integrated systems that will make solar power the cornerstone of a new clean energy economy,” says Daniel Schwartz, director of the institute and chair and professor of Chemical Engineering.

Today, nearly all of the solar panels on roofs are made of inorganic materials like silicon. Panel production is energy intensive and there are concerns about the manufacturing costs and availability of materials. “So while solar energy is inherently green, the way we capture it today could still be improved,” says Jeff. “That’s why we’re trying to make devices in a different way.”

As an alternative, Jeff is testing the viability of using plastic materials as semiconductors in solar panels. Plastic semiconductors are easier to recycle and cheaper to produce. And thanks to a process developed in the Pozzo lab, solar cells can be produced using water-based formulations, which doesn’t leave any footprint.

Jeff’s research could contribute to efforts around the world to reduce the cost of plastic solar cells and improve their performance, but his work is nascent. That’s why his fellowship from William, ’53, and Marilyn Conner is vital; it has allowed Jeff to travel to specialized labs on the East Coast, attend conferences to keep up on the latest technology, and even freed up Professor Pozzo’s budget for new equipment.

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Help more students like Jeff by contributing to the William & Marilyn Conner Fellowship in Chemical Engineering.

The Conner Fellowship has also enabled Jeff time to volunteer with the College of Engineering’s annual Mathematics Academy, a summer program for underrepresented high school students. For the past three years, Jeff has taught teenagers how to make solar cells in the lab, hoping to inspire them by science the way he was so many years ago on the soccer field.

“The only reason the strides we’ve made in this research are possible is because there are people like Bill and Marilyn who value science and want to make the world a better place,” says Jeff. “Not only does their gift have an exponential effect on the community, but it allows us to explore a different approach on the world’s renewable energy challenge.”