From left: Nutifafa Doumon (PhD student at University of Groningen), Andrew Banda (Lecturer at University of Zambia), Holliday, and Thywill Dzogbewu (Central University of Technology, Bloemfontein-SA). Photo credit: Nutifafa Doumon.
Sarah Holliday, Griffin Ruehl, and Breena Sperry are building connections with Africa’s materials science and solar communities
April 23, 2018
Over 50% of the population of sub-Saharan Africa lives without access to electricity, amounting to nearly 600 million people. In regions without grid access, kerosene lamps and solid biofuels are often burned for light and cooking – a practice linked with the deaths of at least 490,000 Africans each year. Solar power, battery storage, and alternative fuels are as important to solving Africa’s electricity deficiency as they are to reducing the West’s reliance on fossil fuels, but African scientists often lack access to the infrastructure and funding necessary to make significant cleantech advances.
University of Washington researchers are building connections with Africa’s cleantech community to help break down these barriers. In December 2017, with support from the Clean Energy Institute, Sarah Holliday, formerly a postdoctoral member of Christine Luscombe’s lab (materials science & engineering), and Griffin Ruehl, a CEI Graduate Fellow in Charlie Campbell’s group (chemical engineering), traveled to Gaborone, Botswana for the 9th International Conference of the African Materials Research Society (AMRS). The conference, “Addressing Africa’s Challenges Through Materials Development,” was focused on science that will enable local industries to meet the continent’s existing and future needs by using readily-available materials and natural resources, including its abundancy of solar energy. In addition to presentations and networking opportunities, AMRS offered free workshops on materials science techniques such as crystallography, nanofiber electrospinning, and scanning electron microscopy. Both Holliday and Ruehl presented their research at the conference.
Holliday (now at Imperial College London) performed research on thin-film organic photovoltaic (OPV) cells during her time at UW, culminating in a paper recently published in Advanced Electronic Materials. Her research illuminates a significant advance in the stability of OPV devices. Holliday shows that using solvents with lower boiling points in manufacturing reduces degradation due to light and oxygen exposure, allowing for roll-to-roll printing of OPV cells at room temperature. Silicon fabrication requires hundred-million-dollar facilities and temperatures over 1000°C, whereas roll-to-roll printing costs significantly less in capital and energy input. “The target is a 1-day energy payback for the whole OPV module,” Holliday said, as opposed to years for silicon-based photovoltaics.
Ruehl also presented at the AMRS conference, although he is still in the earlier stages of his research. Professor Campbell is known for his expertise in catalysis and surface science, which Ruehl is applying towards a fundamental understanding of biofuel synthesis, in which raw biomass is broken down into an intermediate “soup” before conversion into fuel. A knowledge of reactivity trends of the “soup” molecules may allow for the development of more efficient reactions, especially electrocatalysis that could be powered by decentralized, renewable resources.
Ruehl double majored in chemical engineering and global studies as an undergraduate at Montana State University. Looking for opportunities to combine these interests at UW, he sought the advice of another CEI Graduate Fellow, Sarah Vorpahl. Vorpahl introduced him to Holliday after a conversation about creating positive social impact through cleantech innovation. Ruehl said, “I believe that energy access and energy infrastructure are issues of human rights, of quality of life. We should encourage development of clean energy infrastructure [in the first place], rather than retrofitting infrastructure to be clean after the fact.”
Breena Sperry, a first-year materials science and engineering Ph.D. student in Luscombe’s group, is the newest member of the initiative. In her senior year at SUNY-Albany, she took a policy course focused on renewable energy, which she says illustrated the global impacts of clean energy and the disconnect between policymakers and scientists. The course inspired her to apply to graduate programs where she could interweave materials science and public policy. “CEI seemed like a great avenue to explore my interests,” she said. Shortly after joining Holliday’s team, which is focused on thin-film solar cells, the two struck up a conversation about Sperry’s interests beyond research. Sperry explained, “I wanted to get involved in broader-impact initiatives, such as working with communities that have yet to develop refined energy infrastructure, collaborating to discover solutions for accessible, inexpensive, and sustainable clean energy. It was right up [Holliday’s] alley, and I joined the project soon after.”
At the AMRS conference, the group made connections with the African Network for Solar Energy (ANSOLE), as well as the Materials Science and Solar Energy Network for Eastern and Southern Africa (MSSEESA). In September, Ruehl and Sperry will co-organize ANSOLE Days 2018, a conference hosted by ANSOLE at a vocational school in Cameroon. Along with the traditional research-based lectures and presentations, the event will include training sessions on mounting and maintenance of solar panels, as well as safety measures. “Hands-on training and discussion at the practical end of the spectrum is important for implementation, and this format will also help us understand the best ways for us to create positive impact,” Ruehl remarked.
The group’s goal is to transition from trips and events organized by a small group to a longer-term initiative that serves as a connection point between UW, local partners, and international partners in the global south. Holliday explained, “Across the global south, one billion people are still without electricity. Why would we try to develop this access on our own [as Western scientists], and not work with the people there to include everyone’s voice? We can solve localized energy crises by collaborating with those with local experience.”