Hamline News

A Focus on Sustainability in the REER Lab

Students use specialized tools and techniques 

Solar panels on Robbin Science Center updated

to solve pressing energy and environmental problems in Hamline’s Renewable Energy and Environmental Research (REER) Lab which is spread over several areas in the Robbins Science Center. 

“The REER Lab is a place where physics students put their whole STEM educations —biology, chemistry, computer science, materials science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering— into practice,” said Professor and Physics Department Chair Lifeng Dong.
Most students are working on ideas or developing materials that will ensure clean energy and a healthy environment in the future. For example, on the roof of Robbins, students are testing a new film designed to keep snow from accumulating on solar panels. 


Tools in the REER Lab
Inside the building, the REER Lab contains sophisticated equipment needed to create prototypes and test their effectiveness. For example, the vacuum apparatus and glove box can be used to handle the volatile materials needed to make some types of solar cells and batteries. 

Vacuum Apparatus in the REER Lab    

Though impressive and effective, manufacturing with this type of complex equipment is expensive and  time-consuming so some students in the REER lab are investigating alternative production methods.  

Glove box in REER lab

Senior Seth Rice is fabricating an improved solar cell using perovskite, a crystal that can absorb light. Currently, perovskite solar cells are more efficient than silicon solar cells, but these high-efficiency cells contain hybrid organic-inorganic lead halide-based materials, which are not environmentally friendly and lack stability due to reactions with moisture and oxygen. Usually, these types of perovskite solar cells need to be fabricated in a glove box or vacuum apparatus. Instead, Rice has been using a variety of other spray coating and oxidation methods to deposit perovskite and other materials such as mesoporous titanium oxide on a piece of glass to create solar cells. He then tests them using specialized instruments that can measure the electric power they produce.

A beam of light shines on a solar cell. The red and blue leads attach to a device that measures power output.

“The work has been progressing steadily,” Rice said. “My project will be the foundation for another student who, once we are able to make perovskite solar cells, will be able to work on replacing lead in the perovskite structure with a metal that is not as harmful.” He continued, “If that project is successful, it will make perovskites a better option for renewable energy because there will not be the risk of releasing lead into the environment.”

The theme of passing along knowledge is echoed by Matthew Choquette, a senior and President of Hamline’s Society of Physics Students (SPS). Choquette is completing a grant-funded project with junior Ian Russman to build a model house that demonstrates renewable energy concepts. For this project, titled “Renewable Energy in Units Anyone can Understand,” the team is placing a computer within the house that will be powered by miniature renewable energy sources, including solar panels, wind turbines and hydroelectric generators. The computer will be connected to a monitor will visualize how much energy is being produced by the combined renewable energy sources.

Matt Choquette and the materials for his renewable energy demonstration model.

The completed model will be displayed in the basement of Robbins, where a fan and light will power the solar panels and wind turbines. The finished project will be part of physics and renewable energy outreach events with K-12 students.
In explaining why he was working on this project, Choquette said, “I wanted to improve my technical and problem-solving skills, while also making something that will stay with Hamline for many years ahead.”

Teamwork in the REER Lab
In addition to individual projects, physics students can gain access to the lab through Professor Dong’s Advanced Research Laboratory. This year, the two-semester class is structured around the Environmental Protection Agency’s People, Prosperity, and the Planet (P3) student design competition to improve water sustainability. Hamline physics students are spending this school year developing team research projects, writing a grant proposal and completing the project.
For their project, juniors John Apt, Mari Johnson, and Ian Russman are developing a water filter system that resists clogging or, in filtration terms, “fouling.” Filtration is one of the main sources for potable water and fouling blocks filters and requires harmful cleaning chemicals. The team hopes to come up with a more sustainable, chemical-free solution. After spending time researching the related science, they have decided to develop an electroactive polymer coating for nanofilter membranes. Electricity will then be applied to alternate sides of the membrane, causing it to oscillate rapidly and free anything that is blocking the membrane.

 “The other half of our work was designing and creating a pump system to test our filter's functionality,” said Apt. “Through the use of CAD software, 3D printers, and basic pumps and tubing, we have a system design planned and are in the process of assembling it.”

CAD Sketch of an improved chemical-free water filter.

 Juniors Eric Erb, Stephanie Escobar-Guerra, and Zach Reed are also working on a water filtration project to collect rain water from buildings and make it potable or drinkable. The Ultraviolet Light in Combination with Filtration (UVCF) system is an integrated gutter filter that will clean, collect, and store rain and snowfall to create potable water which will eventually be redirected it into a residential home.

Stephanie Escobar–Guerra and Zach Reed show off their UVCF System constructed using a 3D printer.

“In addition to capturing water the UVCF will reduce the spread of stormwater contaminants by processes of collection and containment,” said Escobar-Guerra. “We hope that this will create easily accessible potable water for not only the residents of Minnesota but also anywhere else there is heavy rain and snowfall,” she continued.

The water filtration projects do not use the REER Lab’s highly technical equipment, but the students still benefit from the collegiality of the place.

“We share lab space and equipment with the REER Lab, often working alongside each other on our different projects, said Apt. “If either group has questions or difficulties, the other will lend a hand.”
The REER Lab provides more than technical tools and resources that allow students to advance sustainability, it is a space that encourages inquiry and an ethos of sharing —both knowledge and scientific advances.

“Dr. Dong has been very valuable to my project, and has encouraged me to develop my own hypothesis and reach my own conclusions from the data," Rice said. "It is extremely helpful to talk to someone with experience in this field, while also being able to do my own research in the literature and reach my own conclusions about how to advance the project.”

“In Minnesota, we have plenty of resources that we have not figured out how to renew and reuse,” said Escobar-Guerra. “We often think of global warming on a global scale. However, it is the focus on local sustainability that really makes an impact because whatever we come up with to help we can share with the rest of the world.”

Written by staff.