Research Communications

Sunny Outlook: Austin Way studies method to create solar cells 

By Taylor Evans
Nov. 2, 2012

Because fuels such as coal and gas come from finite resources and have raised environmental concerns, scientists constantly are looking for sources of renewable energy. Ohio University physics student Austin Way is one of those scientists. He’s studying how to create a new type of solar cell, which produces an electric current when exposed to light, through a method called sputtering.

Sputtering is used to create a variety of technologies, including the optical coating on lenses, displays for phones and circuit boards and parts for electronics, said Marty Kordesch, a professor of physics and astronomy and Way’s advisor on the project. Although scientists have used the technique to create certain types of solar cells, they continue to experiment with new materials such as amorphous indium gallium nitride. If it works, sputtering could be a simpler, more cost-effective process of making amorphous solar cells, Way said.

Austin Way (Photo by Ben Siegel)

“The cool thing about sputtering is it would make things a lot easier, as you could do multiple steps with one machine instead of having to change machines to do these different steps to create solar cells,” he said. “What we want to try to do is take it from beginning almost to the end in one go.”

How does sputtering work? Scientists place a material—in the case of Way’s study, a copper cup filled with indium gallium metal—below a glass substrate.  The atoms in the material are ejected upwards by bombarding them with energetic nitrogen gas ions. The ions create a nitrogen plasma that reacts with the sputtered indium and gallium, which creates a thin layer of a new material on the glass.

Sputtering could be used to create multilayered solar cells, with each layer made to absorb a different region of the solar spectrum, Kordesch explained.

Way, an Honors Tutorial College student, started working with Kordesch during freshman year, when the professor gave him a project dealing with phase-change materials that are made with a sputtering machine. Way has been researching this method since summer and hopes to create a sputtered solar cell by winter. He and physics graduate student Pratheesh Jakkala have the materials and are currently working on making the sputtering machine more suited to creating solar cells. As part of the project, first they will make a crystalline solar cell, and then move on to the amorphous solar cell, he explained.

Way’s interest in renewable energy stems from his freshmen year experience with the Kanawha Project, an environmental sustainability project that promotes understanding of the ties between the economy, energy and the environment.

“I kind of got hooked on the whole environmental/renewable energy idea,” he said. “I was interested in it before, but now I saw a lot more about how it’s used and how it affects things. It made me more interested in what it could impact and what I could change.”

His passion for renewable energy led him to projects in which he could study the physics behind possible solutions. He recently received the Hollings Scholarship, a two-year scholarship for sophomores whose studies focus on the environment. Way can choose to conduct research at a government agency of his choice in summer 2013. He hopes to travel to Colorado to study at either the National Renewable Energy Lab or the NOAA Earth Systems Lab. His long-term plan is to pursue a doctoral degree in physics and to continue studying renewable energies with a corporation or the government.