photo of slide under microscope

Chem team on a powerful mission

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Students lead energy research project

In the 1940s, Sci-Fi writer Isaac Asimov envisioned humans harvesting solar power in space and sending it down to power people’s needs on Earth. Engineers are still working on that one.

What if scientists could create better solar panels here on Earth? What if it could be in the form of an ultra-thin organic film? No, not like growing organic lettuce, more like organic wiring.

A team of chemistry students are experimenting with ways to create exactly that, under the guidance of chemistry professor Dr. Mike Springer.

SWOCC researchers today

“Theoretically we could use it for like replacing windows so they can harness energy. Or you can put it on roof shingles or paint it on the side of your house so the whole house can propagate energy,” explained student Bobby Rodriguez.

The 24-year-old is on a degree pathway from SWOCC to Oregon State, and then a career in solar or nuclear energy innovation. Rodriguez is often perched on stool beside a microscope, mixing liquid crystals into a solution, placing it on a glass slide. He then spins the slide at 7500 rpms, creating thin films. The goal is to optically align the crystals so electricity conducts through them.

“The liquid crystals are just beautiful to observe under the microscope,” said Julia Graves, a second-year student on a medical degree pathway.

Tomorrow’s teachers and healers

Each team member brings different skills to the group, and takes on various tasks preparing them for transfer to Oregon’s universities and then science-based careers.

Graves reviews literature and presents to group members. It’s helping her understand scientific documentation, formatting and research techniques. She expects to use these skills when she ultimately graduates as a physician assistant to work somewhere in rural Oregon.

“The whole reason I went back to school was I learned about the primary care physician shortage particularly in rural Oregon. I want to be a part of that solution,” Graves said, who joined the research team to be active and involved on campus.

Fellow researcher Zachary Dickinson got a SWOCC Foundation scholarship and came to SWOCC to compete on the swim team. On a science degree pathway, curiosity lured him into this Oregon NASA Space Grant funded research project. An aspiring chemistry teacher, Dickinson has thrived with the open friendliness and ability to problem-solve with co-researchers and Dr. Springer.

Graves agreed, “It’s been a great experience. I know Dr. Springer is hoping this research will build on itself year after year. It’s a fantastic experience for students who are interested.”

That’s the goal. And who knows, the crystals might align perfectly for SWOCC’s research team to help invent the next generation of affordable, organic solar power technology.

Learn about Chemistry career pathways: Text or Call 541-240-8227 [email protected] or visit https://www.socc.edu/chemistry-2/.