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Endowed Funds Help Student Unleash Power of the Sun

Giving News

By Lauren Edwards

The solar energy Earth receives in one hour is more than the energy demand of the entire world for a year. For Reeja Jayan, MS ’08, learning this changed the course of her life. “It was one of those moments where I thought, Why aren’t we using this?” says Jayan, who was pursuing an electrical engineering master’s degree at the time.

Doctoral candidate Reeja Jayan

A native of India, Jayan initially intended to return there to her former job working with satellites after receiving her MS. With her newfound interest in solar energy, however, she began to contemplate remaining in the United States to earn a PhD. She looked into who at UT was researching solar energy, and that led her to Professor Arumugam Manthiram, whose primary work is in batteries and fuel cells. He encouraged Jayan to become a materials scientist when he learned of her master’s research on nano-structured materials for light-emitting diodes, or LEDs.

“Dr. Manthiram’s new challenge was solar cells,” says Jayan. “He said ‘I have the funds. I need you to set up the lab.’” Those funds were provided by donor-established endowments: the Joe C. Walter Jr. Chair in Engineering and the BFGoodrich Endowed Professorship in Materials Engineering.

Jayan jumped into her new role. She was tasked first with sifting through the area where Manthiram wanted her to set up the solar lab, then with buying materials and negotiating space where experiments could be run. When a piece of equipment she wanted was too costly, Jayan, along with a few of her fellow students and staff, completely rebuilt a broken instrument that had been in the lab since the 1960s. “We had to go to hardware stores all over town to find little parts to fix it,” she says. “But we got it up and running within three months. It would have cost $50,000 to buy it new!”

It’s that kind of innovative thinking that makes Jayan, who recently received a doctoral fellowship from the American Association of University Women, a perfect candidate to help solve the world’s energy challenges. Her dissertation focuses on growing nano-structures of titanium dioxide, an inexpensive material that is already being used in products like sunscreen. She combines the tiny structures with a sunlight-absorbing polymer and coats the mixture onto a smooth surface. The result? A highly cost-effective hybrid solar cell.

Asked what she envisions for our planet’s energy future, Jayan is quick to point out that there are numerous energy technologies on the horizon. “Solar definitely is the most abundant clean energy resource we have, but whether or not it will be the solution, I can’t say,” she says. “It has to be a combination and integration of technologies; for example, I’m also working on the batteries needed to store the energy generated by our hybrid solar cells.”

Jayan hopes the technology she is working on will become widely used in the future. “One of the big problems with solar energy is that it’s expensive,” she says. “That’s why we don’t have it on all of our roofs yet. But we’re doing something different.”

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