Rewarding research: Student’s chemistry work helps advance solar-cell technology

The quest to develop technologies to replace coal and oil as energy sources is underway in many venues, including a laboratory at Wake Forest.

Chemistry professor Ronald Noftle and his student lab assistants have been experimenting with new thiophene molecules and polymers, hoping to develop a thin, flexible, inexpensive and efficient method for storing energy.

Melissa Donaldson, who graduated May 17 with a degree in chemistry and a minor in Spanish, spent three years working with Noftle making and characterizing monomers for the next generation of solar cells.

“The sun provides enough power in one hour to energize the earth for a year. Changing the way we produce solar cells and harvesting the energy more efficiently has the potential to have dramatic effects on our daily lives by reducing our reliance on fossil fuels,” said Donaldson, who is originally from Chicago.

Wake Forest’s Center for Nanotechnology and Molecular Materials recently received the first patent for a new solar-cell technology that can double the energy production of today’s flat cells at a fraction of the cost.

Noftle and his group have been working with Dave Carroll, the director of the Nanotechnology Center, on the synthesis of polymers with properties suitable for use in the fiber cells.

Donaldson was one of a small group of undergraduates in Noftle’s lab. “He’s like MacGyver,” she said of Noftle. “Give him a toothpick and a rubber band and he’s good to go. He’s a creative mentor. I spent more time in the lab than at home, and I wished I’d had more time to spend on the project.”

Donaldson, who is attending MIT in the fall to begin work on a PhD in chemistry, said the most important thing she learned from her research is to stay focused, even when progress seems slow, because “you never know when there will be success.”

Noftle was recently selected as a Senior Scientist Mentor by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, one of only 12 in the country. The foundation awarded Noftle $20,000 to continue his research work with undergraduates.

“Undergraduate research gives students going on to graduate school a real edge,” Noftle said. “They gain experience in planning their experiments, taking their own measurements, using our most sophisticated instruments, and becoming familiar with the chemical literature in their field of study. If they pursue honors in chemistry, as Melissa has done, they also write a thesis based on their research and defend it in front of the faculty and other students. It’s an invaluable experience.”

Categories: Graduate School, Research, Student, Teacher-Scholar, Wake Forest College, Working Together