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Professors Receive Healey Research Grants

Funds Will be Used to Create Greener Solar Cells, Study Light

Asst. Prof. Margaret Sobkowicz-Kline, left, and undergraduate student Fran Palacios
Plastics engineering Asst. Prof. Margaret Sobkowicz-Kline, left, and undergraduate student Fran Palacios working in the Polymer Science Lab.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Asst. Prof. Margaret Sobkowicz-Kline of Plastics Engineering and Assoc. Prof. Viktor Podolskiy of Physics and Applied Physics are among the winners of this year's Joseph P. Healey Advancing Research, Scholarship and Creative Work Seed grants. Sobkowicz-Kline and Podolskiy were cited for their work on photovoltaic cells and optics, respectively. The other recipients include faculty researchers from the College of Fine Arts, Humanities & Social Sciences, the Graduate School of Education and the Manning School of Business.

The goal of the yearlong grants, funded through the UMass Lowell Provost’s Office, is to support innovative ideas from faculty members by helping them generate preliminary results, which could then lead to long-term external funding and success.

Sobkowicz-Kline was awarded $10,000 for her project entitled “Solution Stability and Processing of Organic Photovoltaics Using Greener Solvents.” Podolskiy received nearly $9,000 for his work, “Understanding Optics of Quasi-Random Systems by Merging Transformation Optics and Random Matrix Theory.”

A Safer Way of Making Solar Cells

Sobkowicz-Kline and her undergraduate student, Fran Palacios, will study alternative solvents used in film casting for polymer solar cells. 

“We are looking to replace chlorinated solvents used in processing polymers that have photovoltaic properties,” says Sobkowicz-Kline. “These polymers are a promising alternative to traditional silicon-based solar cells because they are lightweight, flexible and less expensive to process and can potentially be integrated into a range of new applications, such as building windows, fabrics, paper, and many others.”

Currently, she says the coating uses hazardous solvents, and there are ongoing processing problems with the polymers’ low solubility.

“We are investigating other solvents to make the process greener, and we are seeking to understand fundamental solution properties that will help guide the processing of organic photovoltaics and electronics in general,” she says.

Sobkowicz-Kline will use the Healey seed grant to purchase the relatively expensive materials that go into a polymer solar cell, so they can try a large range of formulations and zero-in on combinations of materials that can help produce greener photovoltaics. 

“Our initial results look promising,” she says. “We hope they help us secure larger federal funding.”

Understanding the Motion of Light Through Space

Podolskiy says one can look at the motion of light through space from different viewpoints. 

“One viewpoint is to look at the profile of refractive index in your geometry and use Maxwell equations to solve for the path the light would take as it travels through the system,” he explains. “Another way of looking at the same problem is to look at the path the light takes, use that line as your coordinate axis and solve for the refractive index that the light ‘feels’ when it travels effectively along the straight line.”

Mathematically, he says there is a transformation that takes place which changes the curved path the light takes in real space into the straight coordinate axis that it sees. 

“The emerging area of ‘transformation optics’ deals with understanding this transformation,” says Podolskiy. “We will try to use such technique to analyze field distribution inside random structures, which have previously been known to be useful in spectroscopy and nonlinear optics.”

What are the practical applications of this technology?

“If it works, we will have a new framework to look at the optics of random composites, which will have implications in the design of optical devices for biology, health and the defense sector,” he says.

Podolskiy will use his Healey grant to hire a graduate student to work with him on the project.