We were lucky enough to sit down with Reeja Jayan, a doctoral student in Materials Science and Engineering, and talk with her about her solar energy research. With climate change becoming increasingly evident and oil prices on the rise, researching clean energy resources is now more important that ever. Read on to learn more about Reeja and how she’s making a difference….
The amount of solar energy that the Earth receives in one hour is more than the energy demand for the entire world for an entire year.
Kind of incredible, isn’t it?
For Reeja Jayan, learning this one fact changed the course of her life entirely.
“It was one of those moments where I thought, ‘why aren’t we using this?’” says Jayan, who was an Electrical Engineering master’s student at the time. “It made me start thinking that I should work in this area.”
Jayan, a native of India, had initially intended on completing her master’s degree at the University of Texas and returning to her former job working with communication satellites in India. With a newfound interest in solar energy, however, she began to contemplate remaining in the U.S. to earn a Ph.D.
Jayan promptly began looking into UT professors researching solar energy, and soon found Dr. Arumugam Manthiram. Manthiram, whose primary research is in batteries and fuel cells, encouraged Jayan to “become a materials scientist” when he learned of her master’s research on nano-structured materials for light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.
“Dr. Manthiram’s new challenge was solar cells,” says Jayan. “He said ‘I have the funds. I need you to set up the lab.’”
Jayan dove right into her new role as a doctoral student in Materials Science and Engineering. She recalls how the space where Manthiram wanted her to set up the solar lab was in complete disarray, piled high with things “waiting to be thrown out.” Jayan was tasked with spending her summer sifting through all of the clutter, buying materials and negotiating space in which experiments could be run. When some of the equipment she wanted was too costly, Jayan figured out an innovative way to work around a lack of resources: she, along with a few of her fellow Materials Science students and staff, completely rebuilt a piece of broken equipment that had been left in the lab since the 1960s.
“We had to go to hardware stores all over town to find little parts to fix it,” she says. “But with help, we got it up and running within three months…it would have cost $50,000 if we had to buy it new!”
It’s this kind of innovative thinking that makes Jayan, who recently received a doctoral fellowship from the Austin Branch of the American Association of University Women, a perfect candidate to help solve the energy crisis that our nation—and our world—faces.
Jayan’s dissertation focuses on growing nano-structures of titanium dioxide, an inexpensive material that is already being used in products like sunscreen and food coloring. In the lab she worked so hard to set up, Jayan is combining these nano-structures with a sunlight-absorbing polymer and coating the mixture onto a smooth surface. The result? A highly cost-effective hybrid solar cell.
“One of the big problems with solar energy is that it’s expensive,” says Jayan. “That’s why we don’t have it on all of our roofs yet…but we are doing something different.”
Although this new solar technology hasn’t yet been perfected, it is Jayan’s hope that it will become widely used in the future.
When asked what she envisions for our planet’s future when it comes to energy resources, Jayan is quick to point out that there are numerous clean energy technologies on the horizon.
“Working in a particular technology, I can be biased. Solar definitely is the most abundant clean energy resource we have, but whether or not it will be the solution, I can’t say,” she says. “I realize that it has to be a combination and integration of technologies; for example, I’m also working on the batteries needed to store the energy generated by our hybrid solar cells.”
Jayan says that no matter what the solution, it is vital that one is found.
“It’s not just the fossil fuels running out, but it’s what we are going to the environment,” says Jayan. “My parents called me up from India and asked, ‘When is this solar energy thing happening?’, because of the extreme heat there.”
“Climate change is happening,” she says. “Some really experienced people I’ve talked to say (the solution) will be a combination of clean energy technologies and people willing to adopt these and do so sustainably.”
“It’s probably not one ‘eureka’ moment, but a lot of these tiny, sustainable steps.”
By Lauren Edwards