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Photo: Jeremy Gaumer and John Scofield

Gaumer and Scofield in front of the vacuum sputter system used for making zinc oxide.


Oberlin Students Collaborate with NASA Researchers to Produce Solar Cells

by Sue Kropp

Image of a zinc oxide thin film under an atomic force microscope.

JANUARY 22, 2002--Long deemed too expensive to be an economical source of energy, solar power is making its way into the mainstream. Due in large part to advances in technology and changes in the global political and economic climate, creating an inexpensive source of renewable energy is more feasible than ever. Several Oberlin students are adding to the existing research with a project that will produce, in their laboratories in Wright Hall, the thin films used in solar cells.

John Scofield, associate professor of physics, is heading up the research on solar cells at Oberlin College.

"I began doing work on thin film solar cells eight years ago, because I was interested in renewable energy sources," says Scofield. "I spent a year in Colorado working with a group from the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL), and then continued my research at Oberlin. Last year, the opportunity arose for my students and I to collaborate on thin film solar cells with a group of researchers at the NASA-Glenn Research Center in Cleveland."

Jeremy Gaumer '02 has been working with Scofield since NASA funded the project with a faculty fellowship. Gaumer, a physics major from Wooster, Ohio, was invited to work with Scofield and Dorab Sethna, a fourth-year 3-2 engineering major from Bombay, India.

"The goal of our research was to produce high-quality zinc oxide thin films to use in solar cells, and to produce them in the lab at Oberlin," Gaumer says.

Scofield and Gaumer managed to produce the thin films early on in the research phase, but are still working to get consistent results each time they produce a new set of films.

"We've taken a lot of other scientists' research into consideration and applied it to what we're doing to make a better film," says Gaumer. "Now that we know we can produce the films, we are looking for the materials and conditions that will create the same results across the board."

The collaborative nature of the field has given Gaumer the chance to work with specialists at NASA. As part of their project, Scofield and Gaumer are focusing on the three layers that make up the solar cell "window" while NASA scientists focus on the bottom two layers that constitute its "absorber." Together the five layers will create a solar cell.

Also working with Scofield this semester is Brody Wilson, a fifth-year double-degree student from Montrose, Colorado. Wilson joined the project at the beginning of fall semester, and has since developed a method to deposit a thin film cadmium sulfide layer upon which the zinc oxide layer developed by Gaumer is deposited.

"We need to create a window layer that is as transparent as possible to allow the maximum amount of light through, yet is still conductive," Wilson says. "After Jeremy deposits the zinc oxide layer onto my buffer layer we measure the optical and electrical properties of the combination to find their combined transparency and conductivity."

Although the research being done by Scofield, Gaumer and Wilson is similar to research conducted in labs around the world, the importance of working on this project at Oberlin is understood by all participants.

"Working on this project provides valuable engineering experience for someone interested in the solar cell field," says Gaumer. "Fabricating the thin films here will provide students with the opportunity to work on different aspects of solar cell research in the coming years."

Wilson adds, "I'm not sure if this is the field that I will go into, but it is a great opportunity to get the research experience that is so important for graduate schools. This specific project is important to me, though, because anything I can do to make solar energy a more viable option makes me feel like I'm doing something for the protection of our environment."

"I have a lot of fun working with my students," says Scofield. "Not only am I teaching them, but I'm letting them see what they actually will be getting into if they decide to become physicists. What they learn in a book is not the same as what goes on in a lab, so giving them the opportunity to have hands-on experiences during their undergraduate years is important."




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