Bull's eye on clean energy for developing world

Tricia Bull wanted to get into something new called “nanotechnology” during her senior year of high school in Ohio in 2000, but she didn’t know where to start.

 

So Bull started at the top; she e-mailed Richard Smalley, winner of the 1996 Nobel Prize for Chemistry for discovering fullerenes, and asked him what to do.

“He said study materials science and I blindly obliged,” Bull said. “I had no idea what I’d be getting into.”


Now an MSE doctoral student, Bull has her eye on bringing cheap, renewable energy to the developing world. The late Smalley’s nanometer-sized fullerenes are a key component in her research on organic photovoltaics (OPVs).


Bull, fellow MSE doctoral student Brad Macleod and eight students from other U.S. universities visited Kanpur, India in December 2008 to study organic optoelectronics such as OPVs in an intensive two-week program called the International Winter School for Graduate Students (iWSG).

 

The inaugural iWSG program was organized by the National Nanotechnology Infrastructure Network (NNIN) and IIT Kanpur, a premier research and teaching institution in India.

 

Sandip Tiwari, a professor at Cornell University, and SSK Iyer, a professor at ITT Kanpur, organized the program to foster "global awareness, knowledge sharing and cooperation among academics and future leaders."

 

Christine Luscombe, an assistant professor in MSE who also worked as an iWSG instructor, recommended Bull for the competitive program. “It isn’t often that you meet a student who has the intelligence, vision and passion to bring her research out of the laboratory," Luscombe said.

Tricia Bull
MSE doctoral student Tricia Bull (left) and a colleague visited Indian villages in December 2008 to discuss the impact of technology on the developing world.

 

After Bull absorbed what seemed like a full semester of courses in one week, she took a 25-hour train ride with Tiwari, Iyer and 20 Indian students from Kanpur to Paralakhemundi, Orissa to engage in field work as part of an Association for India's Development (AID) project. Jameson Wetmore, an ethics professor at Arizona State University, also went on the trip.

 

"We mainly visited nearby villages, discussed technology and society, and tried a hand at various activities," Bull said, listing brick-making, plowing fields, cooking and throwing pottery among the highlights.

 

Students also visited the nearby Jagannath Institute of Technology and Management, met with the faculty and had lively discussions about technology transfer and microfinancing in India. “We discussed the role of technology on village life," Bull said "How does one predict which technologies will have beneficial impacts?”

 

Bull believes technology like OPVs have the potential to lower the social, economic and political barriers to establishing clean, renewable energy in places like India.

 

OPVs are cheaper to produce than traditional, silicon-based solar cells, but still far less efficient. “Solar energy has been plagued by its high cost,” Bull said. “Legislation to help U.S. consumers afford solar panels has been very short-term and unreliable, so investment is difficult. If we can lower the financial barriers, there will be more incentive to expand solar projects.”

 

Bull also believes optoelectronic devices such as organic light emitting diodes (OLEDs) can provide affordable solid-state lighting, a technology that effectively turn windows or other flat services into efficient light sources.

 

“When the two technologies (OPVS and OLEDs) are coupled, solar-powered lighting can be utilized off-grid.” Bull said, pointing out that a company named G24 recently won an award from the World Bank's "Lighting Africa" initiative for their work on complimentary OPV and OLED technology.


The iWSG program will continue next year and Bull encourages other graduate students to apply. “Most scientists are disconnected from the societal impacts of their research and this program provided a multinational forum for these discussions,” she said.

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