If you have ever gotten a sunburn or even just felt the warmth of the sun, you are familiar with the light’s energy. Mindful of this, researchers have dedicated their careers to the pursuit of solar technologies that convert light’s energy into a usable form. Scott Cushing, Ph.D., joined researchers in the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s (EERE) Postdoctoral Research Award Program to harness this energy and possibly advance solar technology.
“I applied for the EERE postdoctoral fellowship because it encouraged translating fundamental research into technological advances through its 80 percent research and 20 percent innovation approach,” Cushing said. “Most fellowships allow only one side of the research-versus-application equation. However, the EERE fellowship invites fellows to research a fundamental idea in the main laboratory, and then apply this or other ideas in an ‘Innovation Project’.”
Inside the laboratory, Cushing collaborates with his mentor, Stephen Leone, Ph.D., to develop cutting-edge spectroscopy techniques. The team hopes to gain a better understanding of solar cells in order to improve their efficiency and reduce their cost.
While most instruments measure the average response of a device, Cushing is constructing an instrument to measure the individual elemental responses. By separating each atomic species in the solar cell, he will be able to determine the roles in the performance or failure of the device.
Cushing has already gained a better understanding of how the atoms in the solar cell change when the electrons absorb the energy of light. He explains: “Just as plants grow toward the light, the atoms in a solid respond to light with motion. Unfortunately, in the solar cell, the vibrating atoms steal energy from the electrons, lowering the efficiency of the solar cell instead of increasing it. In fact, this process is what creates the efficiency ceiling that current solar cells are limited by. Our measurements can now simultaneously watch the electrons and the vibrations. These observations help us understand how to break this limit.”
Cushing’s research aims to improve the cost-to-efficiency ratio of solar cells. To do so, he needs to understand how solar cells convert light into electricity and how solar cells break down with aging.
Cushing explained that without increasing the efficiency and lowering the cost of solar technology, “The potential for jobs and economic growth will be geographically limited by sunny skies.”
The remaining 20 percent of Cushing’s time is spent consulting at Pacific Integrated Energy, a small solar energy company located in San Diego, California. Splitting his time with a production company and a laboratory has transformed Cushing’s approach to his project.
“Thanks to the ‘Innovation Project’, I have the time to really sit and explore ideas, whether my own ideas or ones that I have brainstormed with colleagues at Pacific Integrated Energy. We flesh out ideas theoretically to see their viability. The EERE fellowship has transformed my thinking from just considering fundamental scientific merit, to also considering barriers of bringing technology to market and practical implementation,” Cushing said.
Cushing received his doctorate in physics from West Virginia University. After completing the program, Cushing plans to apply for a professor position and continue technology research.
The EERE Postdoctoral Awards are administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.