Tuesday, December 16, 2014

So, you're a grad(uate) student. How is that different from being an undergraduate student (college student)?

Good question! The graduate student's day changes significantly depending on how far into a graduate program the student is. When you start graduate school, you must take some classes, but you generally devote significant amounts of time to research, as well. By the end of graduate school, you are just doing research. Research is your focus. While graduate students have a lot of time flexibility (who doesn't like sleeping in but running experiments at midnight?), they often don't have time for the clubs that are found everywhere during undergrad. Graduate students are also given many more responsibilities (laboratory keys, the ability to run their own experiments, design research plans, etc.). Since you don't have assignments with clear deadlines, work is very self-directed and you have to keep yourself on track. You are your own researcher. PhD comics sometimes makes you cringe with how true to life it is.

Monday, November 24, 2014

How do scientists from around the world collaborate? What do these collaborations look like?

Excellent question! Every collaboration is different. In our collaboration, we have bi-weekly meetings in which we bring up any issues that we are having. While we aren't all physically in a single location, we talk and present over the internet using conferencing software. At each meeting, a different sub-group presents. During these presentations, other group members will ask questions and offer suggestions for improving work and making heads or tails of confusing data. In our research group, too, we have weekly group meetings where we talk about what is going on in the lab and group members also present both on things that they are working on and things that might be interesting to the group (such as new or relevant research reports). For some collaborations, researchers will travel to physically meet with each other and discuss research. This is how many collaborations are born.

An important part of being a researcher is presenting work at conferences. At conferences, people come in often from all over the world to talk about their work and learn about what other researchers are doing.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

I hear about silicon solar cells, but I have also heard mention of CdTe cells. I know that you work on CZTS and I've also heard mention of a crazy thing called CIGS. What does all this mean?

These different labels for cells refer to the material that makes up the absorber layer. CdTe, Si, Cu2ZnSn(S,Se)4 (CZTSSe), and Cu(In, Ga)Se2 (CIGS) are all materials that can be used in a specific layer of a solar cell (something used to convert energy from the sun into electricity) in which light is absorbed and the energy in that light converted into charge carriers (electrons and what are known as holes). There are a variety of solar technologies commercially available and a single technology may not immediately dominate. CdTe-based cells have been less expensive than other types recently, however there are scarcity concerns about this technology that will eventually limit the extent to which cost can be lowered. Si cells are pretty ubiquitous (and inexpensive), but are not quite as inexpensive as CdTe-based cells due to added processing requirements. CIGS cells are just recently coming to market. Technologies like CZTSSe have not been commercialized since they are still in the research stages (comparatively low, but rapidly improving efficiencies). A new technology on the block that may really shake things up are perovskite solar cells, which have had a meteoric rise in efficiency making them fairly comparable in terms of efficiency to CIGS and CdTe, but this technology has some major degradation issues (water, even the water vapor in air kills cells). Both CZTSSe and perovskite cells are earth-abundant and it is likely that they will be able to be made more inexpensively than competing technologies. Regardless, silicon-based cells will certainly remain in the overall mix. It is likely that, for a long time, solar cells based on several different materials systems will all compete, meanwhile enhancing our understanding of these systems.