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Student conducts thin-film research

zach_Lebens-Higgins [1]A Binghamton University undergraduate is looking into the physics behind why some transparent materials, like those that make up solar panels, are better conductors than others.

In a tiny lab tucked away in the basement of Science II, a team of graduate and undergraduate researchers is studying the properties of transparent conducting oxides (TCOs).

Typical transparent materials, such as glass and plastic, are not great conductors of electricity, yet TCOs are used in electronics such as phones and laptops. Zachary Lebens-Higgins, a senior physics major from Rochester, hopes that classifying TCOs by their physical properties will allow him to determine why they have conductive properties.

Developments in this field have already led to the creation of touch-screen technology that is used in phones and tablets, along with the solar cell. “My hope is that with our characterizations we will, down the road, better understand these systems and be able to make devices — in particular solar cells — cheaper and more sustainable,” Lebens-Higgins says.

Characterizing these materials is a very broad field to research, so the Binghamton team collaborates with several other labs around the world. “We are trying to create a cohesive story,” Lebens-Higgins says.

This multi-faceted approach includes working with University of College London, University of Bath and Cornell University. The Binghamton scientists conduct research on thin films created in a Cornell lab, and then compare their experimental findings to the theorists’ discoveries abroad, a holistic approach that sets this team apart from the others.

Louis Piper, Lebens-Higgins’ research adviser and an assistant professor of physics at Binghamton, helped nurture his thirst for knowledge. He chose Lebens-Higgins to accompany him to Brookhaven National Laboratory on Long Island. There, the researchers used advanced spectroscopy technology to supplement their research at Binghamton.

“I usually only take undergraduates there if they have a very promising result,” says Piper, “and Zach’s been down there three times.”

Along with his research on campus, Lebens-Higgins was also selected to travel with a small group of students to Germany. He presented his research, but he says the best part was talking to scientists about their unique approaches to work toward the same goal.

In fact, Lebens-Higgins points to being able to understand the groundbreaking research others are doing as one of the most rewarding parts of his work. It wasn’t easy; he spent an entire summer learning and researching the physics of TCOs before he stepped foot in a lab.

Piper says Lebens-Higgins is a standout among his students, taking on a workload that rivals that of graduate researchers. This work ethic will aid Lebens-Higgins, who has been accepted to a summer undergraduate laboratory internship at Brookhaven to work on photocathode materials. Afterward, he plans to follow in his father’s footsteps and pursue a doctorate in physics.

“When the dean or provost says Binghamton is a center of undergraduate excellence,” Piper says, “it is students like Zach they are talking about.”

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