Chemistry students spend summer studying solar cells

Chemistry students spend summer studying solar cells

Two Spartanburg Methodist College (SMC) chemistry students are spending their summer break conducting research that could one day impact the energy market – while also getting a glimpse into a career in science.

Fabian Salinas, a freshman student from Pacolet, South Carolina, and Vladimir Zotov, a sophomore student from Spartanburg, will partner with SMC Chemistry Professor Dr. Adam Siegfried to conduct the research. Their work will be funded by a National Science Foundation grant awarded via Furman University. The grant includes a $10,000 shared stipend for the students.

Salinas, Zotov and Siegfried will spend ten weeks in Furman chemistry laboratories continuing research Siegfried began last summer. That research was also funded by a NSF grant, but two different students participated.

Under Siegfried’s direction, Salinas and Zotov will research a method to improve the way solar cells convert sunlight into electricity.

“We are very excited to receive grants to continue this research,” said Siegfried. “I enjoy working with students in a laboratory, especially when the results are unknown. I like being able to mentor on how to deal with real questions and test for actual results.”

The study will continue to focus on increasing solar cell efficiency by speeding up the movement of iodine atoms within the cells (a phenomenon known as “iodine hopping”). The project also focuses on building an entirely new iodine-containing crystal in the lab. If the new microscopic crystals increase the rate of iodine hopping, the cells could produce more energy – an innovation that may one day help bring better solar cells to the world.

“When it comes to research like this, it’s not a matter of going into a lab, testing and coming up with immediate results,” Siegfried said. “There is a process, and there are multiple tests that have to take place to come up with a hypothesis or conclusion.”

Zotov and Salinas learned about the opportunity while taking a chemistry course taught by Siegfried. During the school year, he said, he introduces students to what he’s researching and asks if anyone would like to join him during the summer. Mentioning the $10,000 stipend usually gets their attention.

“Whenever you mention that students can get money for the project, they always get a little more curious,” Siegfried said. “But I have been lucky to have students approach me with a real interest in the science and research, which has made this summer project successful in the past.”

This was the case with Zotov. “I am thankful for being chosen to receive the grant, but I did not apply because of the money,” said Zotov. “I am more excited to be able to do chemical research at such a prestigious university with Fabian and Dr. Siegfried.”

This kind of research can be eye-opening for students, Siegfried says. Like career scientists, students spend all day, five days a week, in the lab. Ultimately, some decide it’s not the right path. “One of my students on last summer’s project ended up changing his major from chemistry to math,” he said. “But it’s better for them to get this experience as early as possible in their studies so they can make adjustments if research isn’t something they love.”

By the end of the summer, Salinas and Zotov will know a lot more about a career in chemistry. The SMC trio began work at Furman on May 15 and, even though their project began shortly after classes ended, Salinas said he was excited to dive right back in.

“I feel very grateful for getting such an extraordinary opportunity,” Salinas said. “While the research is tough, I’m ready to tackle it head on!”

Fabian Salinas working in lab

Fabian Salinas at work in the lab.