Project 1: Synthesis and characterization of photovoltaic thin films and devices (Advisor: Pratap Rao, Nanoenergy Group, Mechanical Engineering)

Thin films are critical components in many different technologies. Students will study semiconductor thin films that show promise for the next-generation solar cells. Students will collaborate with the Deskins and Titova groups in modeling and spectroscopic measurements. The goal of the project is to establish the relationship between the synthesis process, the material structure and properties, and the device performance.

Project 2: Photophysics of solar energy materials (Advisor: Lyubov Titova, Ultrafast Optical and Terahertz Spectroscopy Lab, Physics)
Students will study photoconductivity and optical properties of novel solar energy materials using time-resolved THz spectroscopy (TRTS) and photoluminescence (PL) specteroscopy. Samples for this work will be fabricated by the Rao and Grimm groups. Students will become familiar with operation of an ultrafast laser source, PL spectroscopy and TRTS, a recent and powerful addition to the materials science toolbox. It is an all-optical, contact-free pump-probe technique that provides information about parameters crucial to solar energy conversion: density, mobility and lifetime of photoexcited electrons and holes.

Project 3: Reactor Engineering of Hydrothermal Carbonization (Advisor: Michael Timko, Chemical Engineering)

Hydrochar is a carbon-rich material produced by subjecting renewable feeds, including biomass and agricultural wastes, to the process of hydrothermal carbonization (HTC), a thermal treatment that takes place in the presence of liquid water. Hydrochar has shown promise for many applications, including clean combustion, gas storage, catalysis, and water purification.  A major bottleneck is that the reaction network to produce hydrochar is not known, which hampers design of the HTC reactor for optimized product yields and characteristics. Students will study the HTC reaction network using a new technique being developed in Timko group, and will collaborate with students from Deskins group who will provide simulation support of reactant species and char structures.

Project 4: Efficient, Energy-Saving Reactors for Ammonia Synthesis (Advisor: Andrew Teixeira, Chemical Engineering)
Ammonia production is one of the most energetically intensive industrial processes, consuming more than 1% of global energy production, in spite of having an abundant supply of nitrogen (from air) and hydrogen (from natural gas). Students will run catalytic chemical reactions using non-traditional microreactors in an attempt to achieve low-energy ammonia synthesis. Developing a more efficient process could lead to considerable energy savings. Students will screen zeolite-encapsulated metal nanoparticles (such as Ru) for reactivity under a wide variety of reaction conditions. Students will collaborate with their peers in Timko and Deskins groups in reaction engineering and in molecular modeling.

Project 5: CO2 Photo-Reduction through Molecular Catalysts (Advisor: N. Aaron Deskins, Chemical Engineering)
This project aims to increase the conversion of CO2 (a harmful greenhouse gas) into useful fuels, such as methane or methanol. Photocatalysts, which use solar energy to drive chemical reactions, can photo-reduce CO2, but a cheap, efficient catalyst is needed. Atomic clusters supported on metal oxides (e.g. Cu on TiO2) have shown promise as catalysts. This project will use molecular modeling tools, such as density functional theory, to simulate these catalysts and the CO2 reduction reaction in order to understand and predict catalytic properties. This work will lead to better designed catalysts.

Project 6. Hydrothermal Liquefaction of Food Waste to Biofuel (Advisor: Geoff Thomsett, Chemical Engineering)
Food waste is a significant problem in the US with over 15 million dry tons produced every year. Hydrothermal liquefaction is a promising technology for processing wastes with high water content to bio-oil, a renewable fuel, and bio-solid char for soil amendment or filtration. Catalysts can improve bio-oil yields and reduce the organic waste. This project will use catalysts to improve hydrothermal liquefaction. Students will learn catalyst synthesis laboratory techniques, the use of instrumentation to characterize materials and practical reaction/process engineering.

Project 7. Metabolic Engineering of a Biodiesel Cell Factory in Saltwater (Advisor: Eric Young, Chemical Engineering)

Non-model organisms with advantageous metabolism and physiology are needed to realize biofuel cell factories, recently highlighted in a National Academies report on the Industrialization of Biology. New technologies like nanopore sequencing and new engineering tools like CRISPR-Cas9 can be combined with traditional genetic engineering to domesticate non-model organisms with biofuels potential. To this end, we are engineering a novel salt-tolerant yeast for fatty acid based biofuels production. Preliminary work in our research group has demonstrated that this yeast can be transformed with DNA and express green fluorescent protein, a key step for testing further engineering methods.

Project 8. Solution-phase-processed connecting layer and top absorbers for tandem-junction solar cells (Advisor: Ron Grimm, Chemistry and Biochemistry)
Solution phase techniques to functionalize silicon so as to produce a tandem-junction photovoltaics would greatly increase solar energy conversion efficiencies with only a modest increase in cost. We will explore sulfur-derivitized perylene molecule as connecting layers between silicon and chemical-bath-synthesized metal sulfides for tandem-junction solar cells. Students will become familiar with air-free Schlenk techniques for chemistry, surface-science characterization techniques including x-ray photoemission spectroscopy (XPS), and electrochemistry.  They will use a think-test-refine approach to optimizing the solar devices.

Projects 9 & 10. Photonics Integrated Circuits for Energy-Efficient High-Bandwidth Communication (Advisors: Doug Petkie, Physics and Shawn Liu, Optomechanics Lab, Mechanical Engineering/Physics).

Driving the emergence of Photonic Integrated Circuits (PICs) is the need for high-bandwidth communications with greater energy efficiencies demanded by data centers and the upcoming launch of the 5th generation (5G) of wireless systems. This technology platform opens up research and development in other areas that include PIC biological and chemical sensing devices. As an academic partner in the Manufacturing USA Advanced Institute for Manufacturing (AIM) – Photonics, WPI operates a Laboratory for Education and Application Prototypes (LEAP). Students will work in the LEAP facility. One project will focus on using photonic and electromagnetic simulation software to model 1) PIC devices, 2) schematic and circuit design and 3) layout for PIC fabrication. In another project, student will use the tools available in LEAP facility to characterize new PIC devices and test their operation in the visible through mid-ir as was well as in the RF-to-millimeter-wave regimes.

Project 11. Balancing clean energy with environmental impacts (Advisor: Marja Bakermans, Biology and Biotechnology; Environmental and Sustainability studies)

All energy sources still have environmental impacts, even renewable energies. For example, solar fields can remove critical and diminishing habitat for grassland plant and animal species. Hydroelectric power can disrupt fish migration and cause mercury contamination of local waterways. Although renewable energies have fewer negative impacts on the environment compared to nonrenewable sources, we can still take steps to reduce the conflicts between use and placement of clean energy systems with environmental concerns. Students working on this project will identify impacts to wildlife and provide recommendations to mitigate these impacts to improve sustainable development of clean energy sources.  (Image: