Fourth-year engineering student Alan Filer has won a Fulbright scholarship to travel to South Korea in the fall. There, he’ll explore ways to make cheaper and cleaner alternatives to costly and toxic materials used in solar panels.
Filer, who will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in materials science and engineering in May, is focused on replacing rare earth metals and heavy metals with two highly proclaimed materials: graphene and quantum dots.
He’s challenged with developing manufacturing techniques that make the replacements equal to or better than the materials used now, and ensuring what works in the lab works in the real world.
The project is something he’s been working toward since arriving at Case Western Reserve University from his home in Colorado Springs.
“I’ve always been interested in how new materials enable new products, the way liquid crystals enabled Liquid Crystal Display TVs,” Filer said. “I originally wanted to major in chemistry, maybe with a concentration in materials. Then I came here and found there was an entire department in materials science.”
During his first year at the university, Filer did a research project on graphene, and again took on a research project on the material while studying abroad at the University of New South Wales, in Sydney.
Graphene is made from graphite, the same stuff as “lead” in pencils. Sheets conduct electricity better than copper, heat better than any material known, are harder than diamonds, yet stretch.
To build his experience, Filer worked in labs on campus, developing hands-on and analytical skills. He’s currently studying how roofing material, designed to reflect the heat of the sun, soils as it ages to help the maker adjust its manufacturing process to prevent efficiency-lowering grime. In a cooperative-education program, Filer worked at PolymerPlus in Valley View, scaling up technology from the Center for Layered Polymeric Systems, on campus.
And, throughout college, Filer kept up on advances in graphene.
“I came across an article about a new way to make graphene and the researchers were from Case Western Reserve and South Korea,” he said.
Filer got in touch with CWRU’s Liming Dai, the Kent Hale Smith Professor of Macromolecular Science and Engineering and an author of the paper. Dai put him in contact with Jong-Beom Baek, leader of the effort to make graphene sheets quickly and cheaply.
Baek, professor and director of the Interdisciplinary School of Green Energy/Advanced Materials & Devices, Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology, Ulsan, South Korea, agreed to take Filer into his lab.
Since then, Filer’s been learning to speak Korean and researching quantum dots, which are specially formed nanoparticles that contain free electrons.
In solar panels, quantum dots can produce more current from each photon of light absorbed than conventional materials. The dots convert energy that would otherwise be lost as heat into electricity.
Filer hopes that, by modifying solar panels with the new materials, he can rid the manufacturing stream of toxins, increase efficiencies and bring down costs, encouraging wider use of the panels.
The federally sponsored Fulbright Program is the flagship international educational exchange program designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and other countries.