“Windows turn rays of sunshine into power” bubbled the headline in New Scientist. Was it true? Was cheap, efficient solar energy just around the corner?
I decided to find out.
According to the magazine, this new type of solar cell had been invented by Professor Michael Grätzel from the University of Lausanne. Gratzelʼs solar panel was efficient because it had a microscopically lumpy surface, like the inside of an Aero chocolate bar. Writing in the journal, Nature, Grätzel explained that the surface could be made three times lumpier still. All I had to do was find a way of reorganising the holes; to make the surface even more bumpy, and we’d be able to get lots more power out of it. If I succeeded, the laboratory experiment would be turned into a real product, alternative energy would become affordable for developing countries, the Earthʼs resources would be more evenly spread and world peace would be ours.
So there I was, mashing away; mixing my powder with water and spreading thin films of the liquid onto sheets of glass. My tutors laughed at my attempts to overcome equipment shortages. “This is Jennyʼs kitchen,” said Dr Hepburn, as he showed a visitor around my part of the lab. (My samples were drying nicely on cake racks.) Well, I wanted my films to dry without cracking, which required something raised, flat and airy. Thatʼs exactly what you need to cool a cake, isnʼt it?
At the beginning, I had foolish dreams of building my oxide films by selecting different sized powders, and stacking them in particular sequence. Iʼd use mathematics to produce a film as airy as a honeycomb. Iʼd pile up my microscopically small balls of powder like walls of tiny oranges, and seal them with just the right amount of heat…
“How many different sized powders do you stock?” I asked the only supplier of the titanium dioxide nanopowder I needed.
“Just the one,” said the salesperson, breezily.
I was devastated.
How could I increase the space between my oranges if I had no choice about their size? “You could try sputtering the stuff,” said another tutor. “Pop up to the cleanroom and have a chat with James.” The cleanroom was an electronics lab, so named because all the equipment had to be kept totally dust-free to work properly.
The sputtering machine, James explained, could be used to ‘bomb’ a chunk of oxide and deposit the debris in a tidy layer on my piece of glass. “Put on one of those ʻspace-suitsʼ and see for yourself!” he said, before disappearing behind a rubber-sealed door.
With great effort, I bent over and put my feet into the crinkly white body suit. Great expanses of surplus trouser material bunched up around my ankles (“Where is it written that all engineers have to be six feet tall?” I wondered) but the real problem was a bit higher up.
No matter what I did, the zip stuck fast just below my waist. I couldnʼt see where, exactly. Visual contact with my lower abdomen had been lost a few months previously. About the same time my belly button decided to turn itself inside-out.
“I canʼt get it on!!” I yelled through the door-window, gesticulating at the stubborn zip and my indifferent anatomy.
“Sorry,” said a senior scientist, on the way in. “You canʼt go in there without one.” So that was that.
In the end, I made quite a good few films. By some miracle, I caught an Open University TV programme, which showed about ten seconds of Professor Gratzel doing his stuff. That ten seconds was enough to prompt me into building a makeshift support rig, which improved my technique a great deal. No more cracking.
The most crucial part of the experiment – as I learned – frequently isn’t in the research paper at all.
Three months later, by examining my filmsʼ response to being cooked in a furnace, I was able to suggest why a particular temperature was so beneficial. To a non-scientist, this might seem rather unimportant. But in science and technology, our realisation of the importance of a discovery often comes long after an experimental result.
But the point of my research project, as I eventually realised, was not to change the world, nor to make great scientific discoveries. It was to teach me about the limitations that the world imposes on our work, and how to prevail or remain creative despite them.
Jenny finished her final year project in December 1993. Her son Finnian was born three days later.
Highly Commended by the Daily Telegraph, April 1996