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I recently had the opportunity (and pleasure!) of attending the 39th Photovoltaics Specialists Conference (PVSC) in Tampa, Florida. The conference, which is put on by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), is an annual meeting of scientists and engineers who work in the field of solar energy. PVSC attracts people from all over the world to come and share their research on some of the cutting-edge topics in the field. In this entry I will be providing some highlights of the trip, especially topics that were of interest to me.

I once again had the honour of hosting (alongside other HQP) the Photovoltaic Innovation Network (PVIN) booth. As I have mentioned in previous blog entries, the booth is where we get to represent Canada’s research in photovoltaics. A lot of companies and Universities outside of Canada do not know exactly what we do up in Canada in regards to photovoltaic research, so the booth gives us an opportunity to educate them and get them interested in our work. There are always interesting discussions to be had at the booth with researchers from all over the world!

The conference itself had a plethora of talks which covered almost every aspect of photovoltaic research. It really is amazing just how many different technologies there are for capturing light from the sun and turning it into electricity; so many that it can make one’s head spin! There were discussions on existing technology that has been around since the dawn of photovoltaics such as crystalline silicon, as well as proposals and theories for ideas that have not yet come to fruition, such as hot carrier solar cells. Two talks in particular stood out to me because of their relevance to my own research (light trapping in ultra-thin crystalline silicon). One talk, given by Nicholas Hylton from the Imperial College of London, was on using aluminum nanoparticles (microscopic spheres that are only 100 nm in diameter) for light trapping in solar cells. This type of light trapping is known as plasmonic light trapping, and a lot of research has been devoted to the field in recent years. The novelty of their approach was to use aluminum instead of the more commonly used silver and gold. The issue with using silver and gold is that although they are useful for trapping light towards the red end of the solar spectrum, they are detrimental at the blue end since they soak up a lot of the light there. Aluminum does not have this issue, and the researchers were able to demonstrate an enhancement in light absorption across the whole spectrum!

Another talk that interested me was given by Joao Serra from Universidade de Lisboa in Portugal. His talk, titled “Comparative Study of Stress Inducing Layers to Produce Kerfless Thin Wafers by the Slim-Cut Technique”, focused on the fabrication of ultra-thin (thinner than 100 micrometers) silicon wafers from thicker wafers. Using ultra-thin wafers for silicon solar cells has become attractive in recent years because of the potential to cut costs by using less silicon. Serra’s talk discussed a method for making such wafers. The process involves laying down a layer of epoxy on top of a thick wafer, then heating and cooling opposite sides of the wafer. During the heating/cooling process, a thin layer (he discussed 60 micrometer thick layers in his talk) peels away from the wafer. The advantage to this process is that thin silicon wafers can be fabricated without losing any silicon in the process. Standard wafers are usually made by sawing from a large silicon ingot; the sawing process naturally destroys useful silicon in the process.

I would have to the say my favourite technical aspect of the trip was a discussion that Martin Gerber and I had with Keith Emery, the winner of this year’s William R. Cherry Award. The award is given to “an individual engineer or scientist who devoted a part of their professional life to the advancement of the science and technology of photovoltaic energy conversion”. Keith gave me a very useful suggestion for an undergraduate lab we run here at McMaster University. The lab allows undergrads to fabricate a PERL cell, the solar cell that holds the world record efficiency for single junction silicon cells. Being a record breaking cell, it is naturally very complicated to make and students have had very little success in achieving reasonable performance from them. We shared this with Keith and he suggested that a PERL cell is far too ambitious for an undergraduate lab. He suggested instead that we make far simpler cells. Although it may appear to be a simple suggestion, it really got my thinking about how we can make the lab a better learning experience for students. I will now be working on redesigning this lab around the concept of a simpler solar cell, and owe my inspiration to Keith!

The conference was by far not the only fun part of the trip. I mean, it is summer time and we were in Florida, you can’t really get much better than that! When we weren’t attending the conference we were at the pool, wandering about Tampa, or dining at the many restaurants they had down there. On one day we went down to the beach in the neighbouring city of Clearwater. I’ve never swam in the ocean before, and I don’t think I’ve ever swam in a body of water that was that warm! Overall the trip to Florida was great, and sometimes it felt more like we were on vacation and not on a business trip! I would like to thank Jennifer Briand for organizing this excursion for us, and for all the HQP who attended for the great company and discussions we had.

Kevin's picture

-Kevin Boyd

Ph.D Candidate, Year 1

Department of Engineering Physics

McMaster University.

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At the 39th Photovoltaic Specialist Conference in Tampa, Florida, there were two important and interesting topics which were of particular interest to me.

The first one was covered by Harry A. Atwater, California Institute of Technology (http://daedalus.caltech.edu/research/thinfilmpv.php) “Full Spectrum High Efficiency Photovoltaics” [1]. He was discussing a new concept: splitting the incident solar spectrum into its constituent wavelengths, guiding these different wavelengths into solar cells with different bandgaps, then absorbing them (shown in Figure 1). In theory, the efficiency of such thin film solar cell system can range from around 30% to over 50%. One way of splitting incident light is to use specially engineered nanostructures printed on the surface of a solar cell or planar holographic elements. In the latter case, the solar spectrum is split four ways via a stack of three sinusoidal volume Bragg gratings, where three bands are diffracted at different angles and the 4th band passes through un-diffracted. Four such stacks guide each band to the appropriate solar cell. Each solar cell is composed of two lattice-matched and current matched III-V subcells grown on either GaAs or InP substrates. In addition, because the diffraction grating is sensitive to the incident angle of incoming light, to achieve high concentration with spectrum splitting, a two-stage compound parabolic concentrator (CPC) is used after the holographic elements. The parameters for the primary and second CPC are carefully optimized.

Figure 1 of Xianqin's blog

Figure 1. A scheme illustrating the geometry of eight- junction holographic spectrum-splitting cell with indicated band-gaps and materials

The second topic that was of great interest to me was the progress made in developing flexible thin film solar cells. Since there are an increasing numbers of applications for photovoltaic devices that demand flexible, lightweight solar cells, the research on thin film solar cells on flexible substrates is attracting a lot of attention. The greatest challenge is to lower the cost of production of such devices while maintaining good efficiency in light conversion. There were quite a few talks and posters about this interesting topic during the conference in which the ideas of using tape, metal or polymer as a flexible substrate were discussed [2,3].   I found Kelly Trautz’ talk [2] on epitaxial lift-off (ELO) technology used in MicroLink’s solar cells particularly interesting because it allows flexible solar panels to be made. It also allows one to reuse the substrates on which the cells are grown multiple times.

Xianqin's picture

-Xianqin Meng

Postdoctoral Fellow

Department of Engineering Physics

McMaster University

References

[1] H.A. Atwater et all. “Full Spectrum Ultrahigh Efficiency Photovoltaics”, in 2013 39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference (PVSC), 2013.

[2] Kelly Trautz et all, “High Efficiency Flexible Solar Panels”, in 2013 39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference (PVSC), 2013.

[3] B. M. Kayes, L. Zhang, R. Twist, I.-K. Ding, and G. S. Higashi, “ Flexible Thin-Film Tandem Solar Cells with >30% Efficiency”, in 2013 39th IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference (PVSC), 2013.

The IEEE Photovoltaic Specialist Conference (PVSC) is renowned as one of the world’s largest photovoltaics (PV) conferences. It is also probably the oldest conference that is still been held annually. I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to attend the conference this year, for the second time.

As the PV energy market is evolving from niche to mainstream, I’ve noticed some shift of focus in the topics of this year’s conference. The most noticeable would be the emphasis on the long-term reliability of PV systems. The very first plenary session on Monday morning was dedicated to PV reliability issues, with two talks covering both modeling and analysis of data collected from real field operations.

While crystalline silicon is still the dominant technology, exploration into new materials and concepts has never been slowed down. It is the same with this year’s conference. It is my area of interest to discover potential new technologies that can bring fundamental improvement to the conversion efficiency of the solar cells, or dramatically reduce the cost per watt. I’ve noticed that there was a session dedicated to III-V on silicon solar cells. This is very exciting since I’ve been working in the same area for nearly my entire postdoc period. Previously there has never been a separate session for this topic. Although still nothing revolutionary was reported even with a dedicated III-V on Si session, at least it shows that people are realizing the great potential of substituting expensive III-V or Ge substrates in a traditional multi-junction solar cell with a much cheaper Si substrate.

To give more insights on the latest development in this area, I have summarized some of the highlights from the III-V on Si sessions. The most noticeable one would be the big picture outlined by Alexander Haas et al. from Emcore and Ohio State University. They predicted 39% efficiency in the near-term for III-V on Si 3J solar cells with active Si bottom cells, and GaAsP and GaInP top cells, grown by monolithic approach, with GaP and GaAsP graded buffers between the GaAsP and Si sub-cells. In my opinion, this efficiency is shockingly high considering that the most successful monolithic multi-junction solar cells involving Si as the active cell reported so far are only 21% in efficient [1]. If it is true that 39% can be achieved in the near term, this may be one of the most exciting breakthroughs in multi-junction solar cell development in nearly two decades!

On the more practical experimental front, Andreas W.  Bett’s group from Fraunhofer reported that direct epitaxial growth of a GaInP/GaAs dual-junction solar cell on a GaAsxP1-x buffer on silicon yielded a 1 sun efficiency of 16.4% (AM1.5g), and a similar device fabricated by semiconductor wafer bonding on n-type inactive Si reached already efficiencies of 26.0 % (AM1.5g). S. A. Ringer et al. from Ohio State University and University of New South Wales are tapping into the field of transitioning the buffered growth technique of GaInP/GaAsP on Si from MBE to MOCVD for potential high volume production capacity. More details on this topic can be found in references [2-4].

Among some other sessions that captured my attention, one would be the Fundamental and New Concepts session on Tuesday afternoon. Dr. Alex Zunger from University of Colorado presented a systematic approach to identify new PV materials with suitable properties. He proposed to filter candidate materials from tens of thousands of possible materials combinations from the periodic table with a first principle approach and then try to experimentally synthesize these candidate materials. As a promising example, he and his collaborators have succeeded in discovering a new transparent conductive oxide (TCO) material with this approach. See reference [5] for more details.

Also, as one of the best student presentation award finalist, Aaron Martinez from Colorado School of Mines presented his results on the synthesis of silicon clathrates. This material is essentially Si, but with a very special crystal structure, neither diamond structure nor amorphous structure as is typical. The most attractive feature of the silicon clathrates is that it can be tuned into a direct bandgap material, which means dramatically improvement in the efficiency if the material can be made into a perfect shape. Interested readers can find more details in reference [6].

There were a lot of takeaways from this conference. Tampa is a beautiful city with nice communities and beaches. This was an unforgettable experience.

Jingfeng's picture

-Jingfeng Yang

Research Associate

Department of Engineering Physics

McMaster University

References

[1] M. Umeno et al., Solar Energy Materials and Solar Cells, vol. 50, pp. 203–212, Jan. 1998.

[2] A. Haas et al., PVSC 39, Area 3-246, June 18, 2013

[3] F. Dimroth et al., PVSC 39, Area 3-245, June 18, 2013

[4] S. Ringel et al., PVSC 39, Area 1-942, June 21, 2013

[5] A. Zunger, PVSC 39, Area 1-235, June 18, 2013

[6] A. Martinez et al., PVSC 39, Area 1-236, June 18, 2013

In June, I had the opportunity to attend the IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists’ Conference in Tampa, FL.  This is a huge academic conference covering the entire field of photovoltaics, and has been at the center of photovoltaic research since 1961.

One topic that got a lot of discussion this year was ‘luminescent coupling’, a process where energy that is lost through photons radiated from one part of a solar cell can be recovered by absorption in another part of the same cell [1,2].  This has potential to change the way that solar cells – especially very high-efficiency multi-junction solar cells – are designed, either through careful control  of the internal optics of the cell, or by manipulating materials so that photons are emitted in particular directions where they have a high probability of being recovered.  In this way radiative loss, which is an important loss mechanism in multi-junction cells, can be partially suppressed.

There is an added benefit to designing cells for very efficient luminescent coupling, in that they tend to be less sensitive to changes in the solar spectrum.  Multi-junction cells have traditionally been very carefully optimized to work best under a specific spectrum, but designing for strong luminescent coupling reduces the need to do this, allowing the cell to operate at high efficiency under a wide range of spectral conditions.

At this point, it isn’t clear how to approach designing cells to take maximum advantage of luminescent coupling, or even how to evaluate the performance of cells incorporating it.  There is likely to be a lot of discussion of this topic over the next year, and it will be very interesting to see how solar cell designs change as a result.

 

Matt Wilkins

 

Matt Wilkins

Ph.D Candidate, Year 1

University of Ottawa

 

[1] O. D. Miller, E. Yablonovitch, and S. R. Kurtz, “Strong Internal and External Luminescence as Solar Cells Approach the Shockley–Queisser Limit,” IEEE J. Photovolt., 2 (3), pp. 303–311, Jul. 2012.

[2] M. A. Steiner and J. F. Geisz, “Non-linear luminescent coupling in series-connected multijunction solar cells,” Appl. Phys. Lett. 100 (25), p. 251106, 2012.

This year, the Photovoltaics Specialists Conference was held in Tampa.  In the middle of June in Florida, you could really feel the sun.  It was hot.  The temperature accounting for humidity was easily into the 40’s each day.   And this was awesome for me, since I almost feel perpetually cold in Ottawa.  An ultra-hot day feels like a blessing so I didn’t mind it at all. We conveniently stayed right across the street from the Tampa Convention Centre, which was also conveniently connected to our hotel with a bridge.  All it took was a quick 30 seconds in the heat and it was back to the frigidity of an air conditioned building.

Picture for Ross' blog

 

The actual conference was much more along the interests of the students in the network.  And you could tell.  Students were picking out their sessions as soon as they got their hands on a physical copy of the conference schedule.  I was amazed by the sheer volume of talks and posters at the conference.  It seems as though each of these presenters had a unique research topic as well.  I was completely unaware of the breadth of the research activity in the field of solar energy.  Practically any strategy you could think of had a researcher working on exactly that.

The organization of the conference was also equally impressive.  Talks were kept on time.  The seating was great.  Even the coffee was in adequate supply!  The conference centre itself was a great venue too.  There was enough space for everyone to roam about freely (and then some!).

The PVIN booth was manned as usual by quite a few students at a time.  It seems being at the booth allowed you to interact with more people (it also helped being close to the coffee). While at the booth, it was nice to meet other researchers, industry professionals and manufacturers of solar products and characterization tools as well.  Being a research-oriented conference, it really felt like the place to be as a student studying photovoltaics and I couldn’t have asked for a better conference experience.

 

Ross Cheriton

 

-Ross Cheriton

Ph.D Candidate, Year 1

SUNLAB, University of Ottawa

I recently had an opportunity to attend the 39th IEEE Photovoltaics Specialists Conference in Tampa, Florida (http://www.ieee-pvsc.org/PVSC39/). Since I am just starting to work in Photovoltaics, it was a great opportunity for me to get immersed in this very quickly developing field by listening to high quality presentations given by the leaders of the field. The presentations were divided into 11 topic areas, with a few sessions taking place at the same time. I really wanted to be in a few rooms simultaneously, but with my background in quantum theory I decided to focus mostly on attending sessions from research Area 1: Fundamentals and New Concepts of Future Technologies.

I found a talk by Megumi Yoshida from Imperial College London :“Progress towards Realizing Intermediate Band Solar Cell – Sequential Absorption of Photons in a Quantum Well Intermediate Band Solar Cell” particularly interesting. I was familiar with the concept of introducing the intermediate band (IB) into the solar cell to improve the absorption of photons with energy lower than the band gap energy (see Fig 1 (a)), however this talk took this concept one step further. The intermediate band solar cell (IBSC) can be created introducing quantum mechanically confined structures such as quantum wells and quantum dots [1] into the solar cell. In such cases, the IB arises from the confined states of the electrons in the conduction band (CB) potential.  In theory, by introducing the IB the current can be enhanced by two step absorption of long wavelength photons without reducing the voltage, hence leading to higher conversion efficiency (thermodynamical limit of 46.8% at 1 sun [2]), than a single bandgap solar cell (31.0% at 1 sun).

Figure 1 of Anna's blog

Fig. 1. Energy diagram of an (a) IBSC and (b) IBSC with photon rachet band (RB), in which extra photocurrent is produced due to sequential absorption of sub-bandgap photons increasing theoretical limit in the conversion efficiency. Reprinted with permission from [3]. Copyright 2012 AIP Publishing LLC.

 

However, experimentally obtained IBSCs suffer from a significant voltage loss resulting in lower than predicted theoretical conversion efficiency due to the short lifetime of electrons in the intermediate states. The short lifetime is caused by fast radiative and non-radiative recombination of carriers that occurs before the second photon can be absorbed. To achieve a long carrier lifetime of electrons in the IB, the authors suggest the introduction of a non-emissive (optically decoupled from the valance band (VB) [3]) “ratchet band (RB)” at an energy interval ΔE below the IB (shown in Fig. 1(b)). If there is fast thermal transition between the IB and the ratchet band, the photo-excited electrons in the IB rapidly relax into the RB where the lifetime of the carriers can be very long given that the RB is optically isolated from the VB. The increase in lifetime of the electrons enhances the probability of the second optical excitation process from the RB to the CB and increases the IB-CB generation rate. At the same time, the recombination rate of the electrons from the IB to the VB depends on the population in the IB. The presence of the RB reduces the population of carriers in the IB and the same the recombination rate leading to the increase of the photocurrent of the solar cell and its higher efficiency.

Figure 2 of Anna's blog

Fig. 2. Efficiency limit of photon ratchet IBSC of various concentrations as a function of ΔE. Efficiency at ΔE=0 corresponds to conventional IBSCs. Reprinted with permission from [3]. Copyright 2012 AIP Publishing LLC.

Authors calculate the globally optimised limiting efficiency of the photon ratchet IBSC as a function of the energy difference ΔE between the IB and RB. These dependencies are plotted for three solar concentrations in Fig. 2. Even though electrons lose the energy ΔE by transitioning from the IB to the RB, an increase in efficiency is visible as ΔE is increased. At the same time, the presence of the ratchet increases the below-bandgap and thermalization losses, but the associated efficiency gain through reduction in recombination is even larger. At 1 sun illumination, the efficiency of the IBSC is increased from 46.8% (ΔE = 0, conventional IBSC) to 48.5% with a photon ratchet at ΔE = 270 meV. At full concentration however, the introduction of the loss due to the presence of the ratchet band is not compensated by any other mechanism, leading to a decreased efficiency of the IBSC with the RB as compared to the standard IB cell (ΔE = 0).

Although it seems that the implementation of the photon ratchet IBSC is going to be challenging, I think that this concept is very interesting. Authors suggest that the RB can be built out states of indirect bandgap semiconductor separated in momentum space from the IB. Electrons would be first excited into a direct IB state, followed by a relaxation down through phonon emission to an indirect photon ratchet state, which is at a lower energy and separated by momentum k from the IB state, as well as the top of the VB.

Anna Trojnar's picture

 

-Anna Trojnar, Ph.D

Postdoctoral Fellow

Sunlab, University of Ottawa

 

[1] A. Marti, L. Cuadra, A. Luque, “Quantum dot intermediate band solar cell” Conference Record of the Twenty-Eighth IEEE Photovoltaic Specialists Conference, p940 (2000).

[2] A. Luque and A. Martí, “Increasing the efficiency of ideal solar cells by photon induced transitions at intermediate levels”, Phys. Rev. Lett. vol. 78, p5014 (1997).

[3] M. Yoshida, N. J. Ekins-Daukes, D. J. Farrell, C. C. Phillips, “Photon ratchet intermediate band solar cells,” Appl. Phys. Lett. vol. 100, p263902 (2012)

The Photovoltaic Specialist Conference (PVSC) offers a tremendous opportunity to any photovoltaic (PV) oriented researcher both young and old to convene at a single location and share their latest research results, meet new researchers and potentially new collaborators, catch-up with old colleagues or previous acquaintances in the field, and finally, keep up to date on the recent progress in the field of photovoltaics (or for young researchers, experience an in-depth introduction to the field). For me, it was my second time attending PVSC and I took advantage by participating in the presentation of some of my research group’s latest research results on dilute nitride solar cells, detailed balance predictions for quadruple junction solar cells, and spectral conversion affects with respect to thin film PV devices. I also had the opportunity to learn more about some research progress being made in thin film photovoltaics specifically on Cu(In,Ga)Se2, and on that note, I met a new potential collaborator: Dr. Angus Rockett from the University of Illinois (who happens to have the best name in the field of PV in my opinion).

Over the past year, my colleague Frederic Bouchard and I have embarked on an adventure of exploring the theoretical benefits of a novel multi-junction solar cell architecture which exploits the I-III-VI semiconductor material Cu(In,Ga)Se2 as the bottom sub-cell of a triple-junction solar cell, with the remaining materials composed of III-V semiconductors. A motivation for this novel design is the reduced costs of Cu(In,Ga)Se2 and its strong material properties for PV applications, as illustrated by its cell power conversion efficiencies of >20% demonstrated in the literature on low cost substrates. The first steps in developing a numerical model of Cu(In,Ga)Se2 was studying the material properties as a function of varying the stoichiometry of the material, i.e. changing the In to Ga content, and how these effect the optoelectronic characteristics of PV oriented devices. Throughout our learning process, we encountered a number of publications authored by Dr. Rockett who focused on the growth dynamics of Cu(In,Ga)Se2 using a hybrid sputtering and co-evaporation process under various growth conditions and with different group III ratios, namely the Ga to In content. Working alongside the well known Dr. Shafarman, they explored the performance dependence of polycrystalline Cu(In,Ga)Se2 solar cells as a function of this aforementioned group III ratio, since it greatly influences the optoelectronic properties of the material. Our interest in this was intricately linked to the poorer than expected performance of this material for high Ga content. Based on its bandgap as a function of Ga content, a detailed balance argument predicts that its performance should be higher for a molar fraction of Ga to In closer to 0.6. Alas, solar cells composed of such high Ga content have consistently demonstrated performances lower than those predicted by detailed balance, most likely due to changes in its material properties such as reduced minority carrier lifetimes potentially arising from larger cross-sectional trap states existing within the forbidden bandgap of the material at an energy level closer to the intrinsic level of the material. Modeling devices of different stoichiometries ranging from CuInSe2 to CuGaSe2 could potentially reveal some plausible physical phenomena responsible for this lower than expected performance. Furthermore, we had an important concern regarding the compatibility of Cu(In,Ga)Se2 with GaAs, a III-V semiconductor, using conventional epitaxial growth processes. On this note, Dr. Rockett is the only scientist in the field (as far as we know) that has successfully shown epitaxially grown Cu(In,Ga)Se2 on a GaAs substrate, which further allowed him and his research group to study the optoelectronic properties of the material in its monocrystalline state. This represents a huge stepping stone in achieving a multi-junction solar cell where the Cu(In,Ga)Se2 material would have to be in its monocrystalline state to enable high device efficiencies.

So after a year of research and the preliminary development of a numerical model for both poly- and monocrystalline Cu(In,Ga)Se2 solar cells, Fred and I finally felt confident and knowledgeable enough to communicate directly with Dr. Rockett and request some high level discussion. We thus invited him to a face-to-face discussion, and he agreed! So on Wednesday at around noon after Dr. Rockett’s talk on doping chalcopyrite materials (CuInSe2 and CuGaSe2) using nitrogen, we met and discussed for about an hour some of his work and how it related to our work. We learned a great deal about his motivation for his research and he also gave us some feedback on our approach to the development of our numerical models. We then discussed the novelty and challenges involving the integration of Cu(In,Ga)Se2 with GaAs for multi-junction solar cells. The discussion was very positive and outlined some of the topics Fred and I should focus on in continuing the development of our numerical models. Dr. Rockett also agreed to discuss with his colleague Jim Sykes in order to look into their respective databases of measured device characteristics as a function of Ga content and send us any meaningful data.

Midway through our discussions, a colleague of Dr. Rockett sat nearby, passively listening in to our discussions. Dr. Rebekah Feist, from Dow Chemical, then introduced herself near the end of our discussion and volunteered to assist Fred and I on calibrating our numerical models based on her research group’s effort of understanding the effects of Ga content on polycrystalline Cu(In,Ga)Se2 ­device performance. This was a key moment which was very much unexpected, and opened the door to another potential collaboration which I hope will benefit both parties. Presently, we are all in the process of communicating via email to setup the exchange of relevant data, such as voltage dependent quantum efficiency and temperature dependent current – voltage characteristics. These discussions might prove to be very beneficial to the development of our numerical models in order to study the aforementioned novel multi-junction solar cell architecture.

Alex Walker's picture-Alexandre Walker

Ph. D. Candidate (Year 4)

University of Ottawa’s SUNLAB

Department of Physics

How can one even begin to describe the APS March Meeting, the biggest material physics international conference of the year?

The sheer magnitude of a whole week with more than 40 simultaneous talks at all time can be vertiginous for its tens of thousands of attendees. Instead of spending this article on a ridiculously long exhaustive list of all the scientific results that were presented, I’ll instead concentrate on the biggest realization I’ve made during the week while preparing my talk. An underlying fact that everyone relates to, but few people ever talk about. The presence of faith in science.

Faith is a word that possesses a strong taboo in the scientific community. Indeed, science relies on verifiable, repeatable facts, and, most often than not, steps away from religion altogether. But faith isn’t really about religion. Faith is a great motivational tool, a strong emotion that scientists tend to forget all too quickly. Faith is at the core of everyone, and is indeed, at the core of science itself.

It’s not easy being a graduate student. One Ph.D. student out of two will never complete their studies. The pressure of one’s advisor or funding agencies to produce meaningful, useful and predictable results can be unbearable, and it’s very easy to lose track of your personal research when there are so many great people out here. And that’s where the paradox lies: there is no possible way to predict the results of scientific research. The hardest truth of all about science is that you don’t know what you’re searching for, or even where to find it.

But that’s where faith comes into play. Scientist as a career choice usually comes from a child’s faith in their desire to invent, to create, to understand and change the world. Every scientific experiment is rooted in faith in the outcome, or in the experiment’s success. Even mathematics as a whole, the very language of the universe, relies on faith in a few axioms on which we can build.

The popularity of networking or job search events at the March Meeting is simply ridiculous. With a great deal of chance and a lot of patience, I found myself participating in one of them in-between presentations. Even though the event was very interesting, there is one thing that couldn’t be shown in the pages of notes that I took, but yet was so visible I couldn’t not notice it: graduate students are scared. All of the ones present at the event, me included, were stuck into communicating in English, which wasn’t our first language. We had to interact constantly with dozens of people of all age and color, trying to befriend our competition and watch our public appearance; all while not knowing our place, our relevance, and for the most part, our future. The hardest challenge of all is the necessity to find faith when the universe seems forgetful and senseless. Because, as with love, it is possible to find unconditional faith without the need for a rational justification. Even for a scientist, whose whole job relies on finding rational justifications.

The good news is that the solution is everywhere. Science communication isn’t all about sharing information, filling forms, finding publishing deals, protecting patents and reading articles. At the core, it’s about meeting other people with similar interests. It’s about seeing passionate people ready to stand up to change the world on every level. People who to tell those who dare doubt them that they haven’t met them yet, and they haven’t met their friends. People talking about their dreams with stars in their eyes and excited about what the constantly uncertain future holds. It’s about people having faith, and trying to share it with the world.

Nicolas Berube

Nicolas Bérubé

Ph.D Candidate, Year 4

Department of Physics, University of Montreal