March 3, 2010
CONTACT: Gordon Ovenshine:
Student researchers explore solar energy advances
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Jesse Pattison's path toward reducing the carbon footprint began in his boyhood. The Slippery Rock University physics major grew up in Titusville, where non-renewable oil was first drilled in 1859. Early on, he became fascinated with exploring solar energy - "capturing sunlight and converting it," he said.
Pattison's understanding of solar energy is being illuminated through a student-faculty research project at SRU. He is building a solar panel he hopes will provide a new method of capturing solar energy, with potential application on campus. While most solar panels capture direct sunlight on roofs, Pattison and other SRU students are experimenting with window units.
"We are attempting to construct a device that can capture sunlight that passes through a window and then convert it to usable electricity," Pattison said.
Students placed two solar panels in the Pearl K. Stoner Instructional Complex office of Krishna Mukherjee, assistant professor of physics. The basement office faces north and gets little direct sunlight, a condition they sought on purpose.
"Solar panels are excellent in sunny climates, but we wanted to test how viable they are in western Pennsylvania winters," Mukherjee said. "What we are finding is that even on cloudy, snowy days, we can run a fan or light bulbs off the solar panels."
While the solar panels produce small amounts of electricity currently, the researchers hope to make enough advances so that SRU could use solar panels in windows to reduce reliance on conventional electricity. The University, a pioneer in sustainable education, has a number of greening programs in place and demonstrates solar panels at its Robert A. Macoskey Center for Sustainable Systems Research and Education.
"If we could install these in many University offices, it could save the University money," Mukherjee said. "We want to be a sustainable community. That's the president's vision too. Every little bit of energy that we save adds up."
Pattison said he hopes to discover a new method for alleviating the problem of interior heating in buildings. "Sunlight is an excellent source of alternative energy, but capturing that energy is the main obstacle," he said.
Joseph Yarzebinski, a computational physics major from Wampum, said he is researching the practical application of solar cells. He wants to create a window unit that has solar cells arranged in a way that they function like window blinds.
"The concept is to give the user the option to let sunlight come through the window or block the light that regular window blinds would block, while collecting the solar energy and converting it to electrical energy," he said. "I am hoping to determine two things: which regions and climates this type of application would be most useful and efficient in, and how mechanically feasible is the concept of solar blinds."
Steven Graner, a physics major from Pittsburgh, said he and David Allen, a physics major from Olean, N.Y., are attempting to construct an Organic Light Emitting Diode light from scratch. OLED lights emit light when current passes through them.
"This is a new type of technology that uses organic material interacting with a liquid metal," Graner said. "When a voltage is run across the two layers, it causes it to emanate light. Our focus is to learn, research and test the efficiency of one of these bulbs."
If time permits, Graner and Allen hope to come up with new designs that optimize the light and think of places where these lights could be used. This type of lighting is extremely energy efficient and could be applied to a multitude of different scientific fields, Graner said.
"This research is interesting because it is cutting edge and will be utilized in the very near future for a variety of electronics," Graner said. "You can't just go out and buy one of these lights yet for any reasonable amount of money, so we are synthesizing one ourselves. What better way to understand something than to build it yourself? This way we will have a much deeper understanding of what really makes these things work."
Joseph McIlvenny, a physics major from New Castle, is the student who installed solar panels in Mukherjee's office window. He said he is recording wattage and current outputs of each of the solar panel cells daily at different times and comparing results.
"By doing this, I hope to test the usefulness of the energy being generated in the hope that my research can be a starting point for Slippery Rock University in the use of more green energies in the future," he said.
McIlvenny said the research has provided many constructive experiences that will help prepare him for his professional life after graduation.
"It has helped me to collect, prepare, organize and analyze data from a research experiment that I have completely designed and constructed on my own," he said. "Slippery Rock University will also provide me with the opportunity to present my results and findings to peers at the symposium in April, which is also an important aspect of a scientific career."
Mukerjee said she expects the research to have a lasting influence on her students. Solar energy "has tremendous applications in industry," she said. "So once they graduate, if they want to build solar panels, not only in their jobs but also in their houses, they can incorporate this research."
Pattison, who plans on becoming a high school physics teacher, said he hopes to instill a passion for alternative energy in his students.
"One of the reasons why I am so interested in solar energy is because of the amount of potential it holds to better our future," he said. "While non-renewable energy sources such as coal, oil and natural gas inevitably must be used, I think it is important to lessen our dependence on these finite resources."
SRU's Symposium for Student Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity is April 8-9.
Slippery Rock University is Pennsylvania's premier public residential university. Slippery Rock University provides students with a comprehensive learning experience that intentionally combines academic instruction with enhanced educational and learning opportunities that make a positive difference in their lives.