While solar panels appear on more and more rooftops, researchers are still developing ways to boost their efficiency. As part of her PhD at the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST), Indian national Hameeda Jagalur Basheer is developing alternative materials that can help capture the sunlight better and improve efficiency of solar panels.
Solar thermal harvesting – the process of converting sun energy into heat – has evolved over the last 50 years. While investment in solar panels and government subsidies has made the panels more affordable, huge room for improvement remains in the efficiency of the solar panels.
“Mostly, the issues are related to the absorptive power of the materials used in the panels and that we do not always face the moving Sun.”
“The latter problem has been addressed now with solar panels having a tracking system to maximise the capture of sunlight. These materials can also manage temperatures as high as 500 °C, without degradation. Yet, the current biggest challenge is to find alternative materials with high absorptive power at temperatures above 500 °C.”
Hameeda’s research focuses on the synthesis and characterisation of such super-absorptive materials, providing proof of concept for some of the applications, as well as on building prototypes.
“The funding from my PhD came from an FNR CORE grant. This had well defined project deliverables, timelines, and work packages. This helped me immensely to design the experiments and showed how meticulous planning helps research. There was still room for experimenting with materials, methods and processes during my experiments. Apart from this, I also learnt to communicate and collaborate in cross-functional teams, trained myself to carefully plan the project details and manage the project.”
The quest for solar absorber contenders
The solar thermal panels on a house rooftop can reach up to 60°C, an ideal temperature for heating water for domestic purposes. However, in southern Europe, and the deserts of California, where the concentrated solar plants are installed, the sunlight is focussed on to a solar absorber – the resulting temperatures are close to 500°C. Higher temperatures are key to better conversion efficiency. The bottleneck: The lack of alternative materials suited to be solar absorbers, which have to be stable at temperatures above 500°C.
“Carbon nanotubes can be one such potential material. Carbon nanotubes are nano-materials made up of carbon and visually they look like tubes,” explains Hameeda Jagalur Basheer, continuing:
“They are darkest material, with an excellent thermal stability. The carbon nanotubes are made from gas phase, in a prototype built at LIST.”
“Having realised I thrive on challenges and adventures, I decided to do a PhD”
Hameeda explains that while she was pursuing her undergraduate studies in Chemical Engineering in Finland, she spent most of her vacations doing resear”ch internships that enabled her to learn methods and processes of chemistry.
“I thoroughly enjoyed them and I got used to the feeling of learning something new every day. One of the most important lessons, in my opinion, was going home at the end of the day with a list of failed experiments and treat them as a challenge for the next day.
“Having realised I thrive on challenges and adventures, I decided to do a PhD. When I got the PhD offer in Luxembourg, I remember reading about FNR and the research in Luxembourg. Even though the economy of Luxembourg is dominated by one sector, but public organisations like FNR is making an effort to highlight Luxembourg on the scientific world map.
“My colleagues and I often joke that “In Luxembourg, each one knows everyone” and to an extent it is true. One of the unique features I noticed and appreciate about Luxembourg is that there is strong collaboration between researchers and policy makers. It is great when the researchers’ voices are heard.”
“Thinking beyond my PhD, I feel am best suited for a career at the intersection of research and industry. This allows me to use my scientific skills in a competitive corporate work environment that promotes research and innovation.”
About Spotlight on Young Researchers
Spotlight on Young Researchers is an FNR initiative to highlight early career researchers across the world who have a connection to Luxembourg. The campaign is now in its 5th year, with 60+ researchers already featured. Discover more young researcher stories below.
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