CLEVELAND – 26 Apr 11
USRP Intern Helps to Harness the Power of the Sun
By: Heather L. Ogletree
Many consumers may consider solar power to be a relatively new idea, but in fact, it dates all the way back to the ancient Greeks and Native Americans; in order to warm their homes at night, they built their homes on the sides of hills to harness the heat of the sun during the day. Today, solar power has similar practical applications, but technology has increased its efficiency and reach.
At Glenn Research Center in Cleveland, the Photovoltaic and Power Technologies Branch has partnered with AlphaMicron, Inc. to create a smart window. “This work supports NASA’s goal to research, develop, verify, and transfer advanced aeronautics, space, and related technologies,” said Jeremiah McNatt, the NASA lead for the “Adaptive Windows: Path to Zero Energy Buildings” project.
Subsequently, this is exactly the kind of project that aligns with the Undergraduate Student Research Program (USRP); it provides the opportunity for a student to acquire hands-on work experience while conducting ground-breaking research, and in this case, the type of “green” research that has become synonymous with NASA centers like Glenn. This spring, USRP paired Miami University junior Lyndsey McMillon with McNatt to develop a “small scale working semi-transparent solar cell,” which will automatically change the tinting of adaptive windows throughout the day.
According to the Photovoltaic and Power Technologies Branch website, these solar cells “are considered the corner stone for developing ‘green’ buildings.” What the research of McNatt and McMillon brings to the table is a lightweight and potentially very inexpensive solar cell that will power the smart windows of the future.
This was McMillon’s second term researching solar power applications with McNatt, and she was ready to “take a more independent approach.” McMillon said, “I wanted to demonstrate growth and do more than I did last term. Since this was my second time working on this project, I was familiar with the method I was using – I had more time to ask questions and learn about what the other scientists were working on.”
While at Glenn, McMillon was placed on an interdisciplinary team, comprised of an electrical engineer, materials scientist, and an organic chemist located in Ohio, Texas, and England, to better understand how different substrates reacted with solar cells. She indicated, “We had cultural, geographical and educational differences.” The only intern to be chosen for the team, McMillon learned that “communication is huge in making any team work.”
McMillon also made sure to take advantage of volunteer activities this spring. She judged a science fair and engaged elementary students with a presentation about planet discovery. She said, “Those experiences [will] stick with me. It was humbling to be able to share knowledge of NASA [with] younger students and encourage them to be excited about science!”
Next semester, McMillon will be continuing her research at Glenn through their Co-op Program while finishing up her degree in mechanical and manufacturing engineering. Furthermore, she stated, “I was so intrigued by my experience at NASA in the Photovoltaic’s Branch, I would like to pursue materials science in grad school.”
Looking back at her time with USRP, McMillon mused, “I [worked] on developing the world’s first self powered smart window. These windows can be applied to residential or commercial structures aiding in energy savings. Given the impending energy crisis – I feel good about myself, knowing I am helping the environment.”