Renewable Energy Research Insights

Read the full article by Lyra Fontaine on the Mechanical Engineering news website. Start reading below…

Ph.D. candidate Malia Steward shares her journey to researching renewable energy and how she’s working to improve solar cell efficiency.

ME Ph.D. candidate Malia Steward’s work focuses on solar energy – the fastest-growing source of new electricity in the country, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Photovoltaic or solar cells are made of semiconductor material that absorbs the energy of sunlight and converts it to electrical power.

Steward finds the process of building solar cells layer-by-layer using microfabrication equipment, then using tools to measure the cells’ performance, to be immensely satisfying.

“When you change a specific layer of the solar cell, you also change the overall performance, either for better or for worse,” she says. “A high-performing solar cell excites me because it tells me that my original hypothesis – such as changing the thickness of a specific layer or modifying the semiconducting layers – was correct. This encourages me to expand further into the work with additional experiments, possibly discovering something new along the way.”

Steward aims to understand solar cells’ ability to convert light into electricity, as well as other contributing factors to their performance – including the surface’s appearance on a tiny scale, the surface’s profile and its light absorption. She also researches how placing solar cells within 3D textured structures can trap sunlight to generate more electricity.

By Meaghan Wood (She/Her)
Meaghan Wood (She/Her) Career Coach