UCSB Researcher Earns Humboldt Research Award


Rishika Kenkre
Staff Writer

Chemistry and biochemistry professor and researcher Thuc-Quyen Nguyen received the Humboldt Research Award for her significant research in making organic solar cells more flexible, light and efficient than traditional and commercialized versions.

Germany’s Alexander von Humboldt Foundation presented Nguyen with this prestigious award. All disciplines can be nominated for the Humboldt Research Award. Those who receive the award are given the opportunity to collaborate with colleagues within that field at a research institution in Germany.

“The award that I got is given to scientists in any discipline given by the Humboldt Foundation in Germany,” Nguyen said in an interview with The Bottom Line. “Another honor our group got, mainly on the work on organic solar cells, was that it was among the top one percent of research articles cited. This is strictly based on the research by the scientific community. It is such an honor to receive these awards and it also allows me to collaborate with my colleague in Germany because Germany has a lot of funding. This will allow me to enhance my collaboration with them further.”

Nguyen explained the reasoning behind the interest in her research. She developed an interest in electricity, due to her background in Vietnam. For sixteen years, she did not have electricity, and this fueled her long interest in solar energy. She started working at the University of California, Santa Barbara in 2004 and jumped on the opportunity to work with organic material.

“I spent time understanding what the problems [are],” Nguyen said. “We take the material from synthetic chemists and learn how to process the material into devices. Our group spends a lot of time researching why certain materials and conditions work well while others don’t.”

She and her research team take properties from materials created by synthetic chemists and closely examine their characteristics. They are researching ways to make organic cells have beneficial properties in converting sunlight to electricity, such as conductivity, light absorption and efficiency to form film. Organic solar cells absorb sunlight and convert it to electricity.

“You can actually buy silicon solar cells commercially from places such as Home Depot,” she said. “However, that technology is quite different. Commercially sold solar cells are fragile and heavy while organic cells are more flexible.”

She is excited about her future collaboration with researchers in Germany.

“If you want to commercialize this type of technology, there are two important questions. One is the performance. The solar cell that you buy right now in the market performs at 14 to 15 percent efficiency, which is how well the device converts sunlight into electricity that you can use. The second is the lifetime, which is how long it lasts.”