Imagine a solar cell that is so light and flexible that it can rest on top of a soap bubble. Printing techniques, like inkjet printing, 3-D printing and slot-die coating, offer endless possibilities for making solar cells and energy harvesting devices that are extremely small, light, and flexible. Derya Baran, an assistant professor of material science and engineering at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST), and her OMEGA lab are pushing the boundaries of printing to develop low-cost and highly efficient energy harvesting devices. “Printing gives you so much flexibility and free form of design. For instance, one of my PhD students, Daniel Corzo, printed a solar cell in the shape of a marine turtle just to show what you can really do with printing,” says Derya. The efficient yet exceptionally light solar cells her group produces could be used to power medical skin patches or diagnostic devices like biosensors.
Derya’s background is in solar cells and electrochromic devices, so when she came to KAUST it was natural that she initially built her group on solar cells. But over time, the group’s focus evolved as Derya realized that KAUST’s incredible facilities meant she could take on bigger challenges. She switched gears towards energy harvesting devices, which convert light into electricity or a thermoelectric material that turns heat into electricity. “I geared more towards artificial skin, e-skin, that we could use in future electronics, mobility devices, and IoT devices. That's how I became interested in printing,” explains Derya.
“Scientifically, KAUST’s facilities are a dreamland. There are no limits here when it comes to the scope of research because KAUST has all the equipment and resources you need to be successful. Whatever line of inquiry you want to pursue, you can do it,” says Derya. She first came to KAUST when she was a postdoc at Imperial College London to attend a conference. “I had heard about KAUST so I was quite excited to have a chance to visit and see it for myself. When I heard they were looking to hire junior faculty, I applied immediately because I knew I would fit in. And fortunately I was offered a position."
Her dreams also led her to co-found the start-up iyris, which produces next-generation solar glass that generates electricity while also reducing heat. “iyris came from an idea that was part of my original research plan for KAUST. I initially thought it might be too ambitious, but KAUST is the place to push yourself and find solutions to global problems.” says Derya. The iyris team was inspired by the desert climate of Saudi Arabia, where fresh produce is mostly grown in greenhouses that require huge amounts of energy to cool. Derya and her co-founders realized if they could embed transparent solar panels directly into glass, they could significantly lower the energy costs associated with desert greenhouses. Their smart glass can also be used as traditional windows and reduces the costs associated with air conditioning while also helping power the building.
iyris has received seed funding from the KAUST Innovation Fund and was part of the university’s TAQADAM startup accelerator, where they received further funding and access to relevant facilities, co-working spaces, and experts from industry and government. They were one of the winning startups from their cohort and went on to be selected as one of Hello Tomorrow’s Top 500 deeptech startups.
The KAUST environment has given Derya many opportunities that have helped her achieve success as a new PI. Because KAUST is a graduate research university that offers generous research support, she has had more time to spend on research than junior faculty at other universities. She also benefits from the fact that KAUST’s 1,100 students and over 175 faculty members all live together on campus. “As scientists, we don’t have nine to five working hours. When you live on campus, it’s not a big deal if you have to run back to the lab in the evening.” says Derya. She also adds that living so close to other faculty members helps foster a supportive peer to peer conversation environment since she has more opportunities to talk and interact with others on the same career path as her.
“I'm taking every opportunity KAUST offers.” says Derya. “Incredible opportunities to have an impact and further your career exist here. And if you come up with good ideas, KAUST is very supportive in giving you the tools to achieve them.”
Header image courtesy of KAUST.Continue reading