SunShot fellow advances sustainable energy efforts
Adrian Podpirka, Ph.D., has spent his entire scientific career studying thin film growth. He uses this knowledge to advance the nation’s sustainability efforts while researching as a SunShot Postdoctoral Awards Fellow for the U.S. Department of Energy. The fellowship program is designed to foster the next generation of scientific leaders in energy efficiency and renewable energy. Thin film solar cells are second generation solar cells that involve layering a thin film semiconducting material on a substrate material.
Podpirka received guidance from his mentor, Jonathan Spanier, Ph.D., professor of materials science and engineering, and professor of physics at Drexel University. Podpirka’s research attempts to understand solar energy conversion in complex oxide materials and to make new materials to absorb the visible light.
“Complex oxides are not what people usually think of when they discuss solar cells. However, we seek to change that view with the advances we have made. By understanding the photovoltaic effects in oxides, we seek to open a whole new field of research,” Podpirka explained.
The fellowship gave Podpirka the opportunity to contribute to solar energy and use his background in complex oxides to benefit the solar community.
The photovoltaic effects can include the bulk photovoltaic effect, a response that is observed in certain semiconductors, including non-centrosymmetric crystals. A key characteristic of this is a photo voltage can be larger than the crystal’s bandage. Because this is a property of the crystal structure, this is seen in many different families of materials from traditional semiconductors to complex oxide materials.
This phenomenon was discovered and researched beginning in the late 1960s by Vladimir Fridkin, Alastair Glass, Viktor Belincher, Boris Sturman and others. Fridkin, who hails from Shubnikov Institute of Crystallography in Moscow, is a visiting professor of physics at Drexel at the present time. Podpirka interacted with him regularly in the Drexel University research laboratories.
“The engineer in America is often the unsung hero of innovation, making incremental changes to technology that we take for granted,” Podpirka said. “I hope my developments and research make it into devices and infrastructure so that we can end our reliance on carbon-producing energy sources. But more importantly, I hope we move toward the development of inexpensive film solar cells without harmful elements such as chalcogenide materials or lead.”
Podpirka enjoyed the opportunity to engage in a variety of challenging activities, ranging from running a multimillion dollar e-beam lithography tool to doing high-resolution x-ray diffraction.
“Unfortunately, or more so fortunately, there is no typical day in the lab, which is maybe what I find so fascinating about my opportunity,” Podpirka said.
Podpirka received his doctoral degree in applied physics from Harvard University and conducted research at the Naval Research Laboratory prior to his participation in the fellowship. Ultimately, he hopes to continue to research complex problems either in academia or at a government facility.
Podpirka offers this advice to future participants: “I would certainly recommend the SunShot Fellowship to others. I feel my project at Drexel University has genuinely made me a better researcher and contributed to my overall scientific growth.”
The SunShot Postdoctoral Awards are administered by the Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE) in collaboration with the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (EERE) for the U.S. Department of Energy.