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Engineer aims to improve solar cells

A Binghamton undergrad whose interest in the U.S. Navy originally steered him toward engineering now contributes to solar research that may one day provide power for soldiers stationed “off the grid.”

Isaac Patka, a sophomore studying electrical engineering, began researching the efficiency of solar cells last summer at Columbia University’s Lab for Unconventional Electronics (CLUE). At CLUE, Patka also developed kits for an upper-level class to use in a lab studying displays such as the electroluminescent display, used in backlights of digital watches, and LED screens used in cell phones.

“My role in that was to look at the lab kits that they currently have and to improve them,” the Albany native says. “Some of their circuit boards weren’t working so I designed a new circuit.”

Patka’s work at CLUE included studying organic LED displays. Organic electronics use small organic molecules that behave like a semiconductor, the electricity-conducting material that Patka describes as the “basis for how all electronics work.”

“The organic materials are easier to process, easier to work with in a lab, and they’re a lot cheaper,” Patka says. “The No. 1 focus that I want to get more into is improving the efficiency of organic solar cells, and there are a lot of different ways that you can do that.”

At Binghamton, Patka has begun that focus in a research group under the direction of Peter Borgesen, a professor in the systems science and industrial engineering department. Last semester, Patka learned how to perform stress tests to evaluate the durability of the layers of organic solar cells.

“The overall goal is to produce solar cells with a good balance between cost, efficiency and long-term reliability,” Borgesen says. “I work with both juniors and seniors, but Isaac is the first to approach me already as a sophomore, and I am impressed.”

Patka plans to continue researching organic solar cells with Borgesen’s group, and he would also like to work with Binghamton’s Center for Autonomous Solar Power (CASP) to investigate the properties of solar cells. “What I would like to do is work with fabricating solar cells for the CASP and do some characterization or improve the fabrication process,” he says.

Improving solar cells can help military operations, researchers far from a grid power source and people in regions such as central Africa that lack adequate sources of energy. “I think it’s important because as the technology is improved and as it will get cheaper and cheaper, it will be able to provide people away from the grid a source of power,” Patka says.

Patka says a week-long program at the U.S. Naval Academy inspired him to become an engineer. “We got to tour some of their research labs,” he says, “and that just got me interested in technical things, and development of research and building practical things.”

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