By Kevin Mayhood
When Mona Breslau enrolled at Case Western Reserve in fall 2011, she was thinking about a career involving science and the environment. Field biology, maybe—she had displayed a talent for it in high school. But then she became interested in doing applied research that would lead to advances in renewable energy.
It wasn’t long before she got her chance.
By the end of her first year, Breslau had joined a research group led by Kenneth Singer, the Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics and director of the Engineering Physics Program. She had begun working on a problem that has hindered development of an emerging solar cell technology. She had even obtained funding to continue her experiments during the summer.
Now a sophomore, Breslau is as committed to her project as ever. And she has the advantage of working in a lab where high-tech equipment, expert mentoring and guidance from peers are available to undergraduates and graduate students alike.
“It’s definitely a rare opportunity for a young undergraduate to do this kind of research in this kind of lab,” Breslau says. She is speaking of the MORE Center, a state-of-the-art facility operated by the Department of Physics.
Formally known as the Materials for Opto/electronics Research and Education Center, the lab supports the development of nanoscale materials and devices in such areas as solar energy, biotechnology and information technology. Since it opened in May 2011, 90 students have logged more than 3,500 hours on its 25 fabrication, testing and analysis tools.
“Optoelectronics” refers to electronic devices that generate, detect or control light. But the center also serves faculty members, students and industry partners pursuing other kinds of electronics research.
“We were trying to be a little clever with our lab name,” explains Operations Director Ina Martin. “The slash in ‘Opto/electronics’ denotes that we have equipment for both optoelectronics and just plain electronics.”
Most of the work conducted at the MORE Center is interdisciplinary. This is especially true, Martin says, of the solar energy research.
“Solar cells aren’t a physics problem, or a chemistry problem, or an engineering problem,” she explains. “They’re a large and complicated system that you can look at through all of those different lenses. And having people from all these fields in our lab is nothing but beneficial because you start to speak more than one language scientifically.”
Singer’s research group is one of several at the university working on the next generation of thin-film solar cells. These devices came onto the market eight years ago as an alternative to conventional silicon-based cells; because they required less material, they could be produced at half the cost. Now, Singer and his colleagues are looking to develop thin-film cells using organic polymers. These new cells will produce electricity more cheaply and be easier to install than their predecessors.
“Thin-film cells can be more flexible,” Singer explains. “Crystalline silicon is rigid. If you had something that you could roll up and unroll, for example, or something that wouldn’t break if it were dropped, there would be a practical advantage to it.”
Breslau’s project is part of this ongoing effort. One challenge in thin-film technology has been to maintain maximum physical and electrical contact between two layers of the solar cell: the photosensitive surface that absorbs sunlight and the conductor beneath it. Breslau is experimenting with different coatings, looking for the best way to make the layers cohere. She enjoys the work, she says, because “it is all exploration and problem-solving.”
Martin arrived at the center with the diverse background necessary to guide students engaged in such research. After earning her doctorate in analytical chemistry, she completed two postdoctoral fellowships in applied physics, including one at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, Colo. Since joining the MORE Center, she has become a mentor to scores of students, including Breslau.
“Ina will explain and draw diagrams on the whiteboard,” Breslau says. “It’s important to her that I have a good understanding of the physics. I have to make modifications—informed modifications—and I have to write a paper about my research. So I have to understand the physics.“
Just as important, Martin creates opportunities for students to teach one another. “I have an idea of what everybody in the lab does,” she explains. “So people will come talk to me about their research and say, ‘I’m interested in this material,’ or ‘I want to do this.’ And we’re at the size where I can say, ‘There are three people in the lab who could probably facilitate that.’”
Members of 18 research groups from the College of Arts and Sciences, Case School of Engineering and industry partners have projects under way at the MORE Center. The demand is so great that, in addition to providing individual training on the equipment, Martin offers short courses for as many as 40 people at a time.
As they gain experience with the instruments, the researchers begin to develop new techniques that don’t appear in any user’s manual, Martin says.
“There are often little tricks you can do to make your measurements more consistent, to minimize error,” she explains. “Fortunately, I’m a compulsive note-taker. So, for all of our tools, we now have some basic instructions but also a page or two of tricks for the complicated things. And I learn something new every time I use a piece of equipment in this lab.”
The MORE Center had its beginnings in the mid-1990s, when Singer and two physics colleagues, Kathleen Kash and Charles Rosenblatt, created an opto/electronics materials lab in the Rockefeller Building.
A decade later, Singer was at work on a plan to expand the facility. At first, he simply wanted to obtain additional equipment to support faculty research. But then he realized that with the right operations director, he could strengthen the lab’s educational mission as well. The director would work closely with student physicists, chemists and engineers and encourage them to learn from one another.
As he was developing his vision, Singer found allies in two new faculty members. Genevieve Sauvé had recently joined the chemistry department as an assistant professor, and Liming Dai had been named the Kent Hale Smith Professor in the School of Engineering. Both of them, like Singer, were working on solar cell technology, and they agreed to devote a portion of their startup funds to the MORE Center.
“By pooling our resources,” Singer says, “we built a facility that none of the three of us could have afforded ourselves.”
The center obtained critical funding from other sources as well. In 2008, the Ohio Third Frontier Program, a technology-based economic development initiative, awarded Singer and Rosenblatt a five-year grant that included $1 million for the MORE Center. Additional support totaling $1.7 million came from the university’s Advanced Materials Alliance and Energy Alliance, the Great Lakes Energy Institute, the Institute for Advanced Materials, the College of Arts and Sciences and Case School of Engineering. Finally, faculty members in physics, chemistry and chemical engineering raised funds for and donated equipment to the center.
At one point, Singer realized that the new instruments wouldn’t all fit into the Rockefeller lab. “That’s when a real spark happened,” he says. James McGuffin-Cawley, chair of the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, provided 2,000 square feet of space in the White Building.
Now, as the MORE Center enters its third year in operation, Singer is seeking new sources of support, particularly to fund undergraduate projects.
“I don’t know of another lab where research and education are so fully integrated,” he says. “Yes, the center is devoted to research—but at the same time, it’s student-oriented. It’s as much focused on the students learning how to do things as it is on what they need to get done.”