Last summer, before embarking on his 16th year teaching organic chemistry at North Seattle College, Jim Patterson worked with UW materials science & engineering professor Christine Luscombe to design an experiment where students could create their own solar cells.
Conventional solar panels rely on silicon crystals to absorb the sun’s light and convert it into electricity. High-quality silicon crystals are expensive and energy-intensive to make, so Luscombe’s research group is working on an alternative: photovoltaic polymers, which are plastic-like chains of molecules that can absorb visible light and convert that energy into electricity in a similar manner to silicon. These polymers can be made into thin, lightweight solar cells in conditions that are accessible to an undergraduate lab. During Patterson’s six weeks in the Luscombe lab, he took a crash course in making one of these photovoltaic polymers, known as poly-3-hexathiolphene (P3HT). Then, he learned how to layer the P3HT onto the base of a solar cell by studying an experiment that was designed by a previous Clean Energy RET participant, an instructor at Green River College.
“I felt like I got to go back to grad school,” said Patterson, who is a UW alum and former lab tech for the UW chemistry department. “Being exposed to Christine’s level of knowledge gave me a sense of the big questions on the cutting edge of this field, and I’m grateful for her mentorship. As I continue to develop the experiment, I’d feel more than comfortable popping in to ask a question. Her grad students like Lorenzo Guio and Wes Tatum were also indispensable resources for me, teaching me tricks and subtleties to the reaction that you can’t get from a textbook!”