Victor Vazquez’s Quest for Clean Energy

This engineering major is looking for better ways to turn light into electricity

By 2030, the solar industry aims to install enough solar panels to generate nearly a third of U.S. electricity. Victor Vazquez, E25, wants to help ensure those solar panels are safe for the environment, sustainably produced, and as efficient as possible. 

An interest in nature and the environment, coupled with a fascination with electricity, drew Vazquez toward not just the theory of clean energy, but to working with the semiconductors that will make that goal a reality.

An electrical engineering major, Vazquez spent the last two summers as an intern in Professor Thomas Vandervelde’s Renewable Energy and Applied Photonics Lab, investigating materials that are used in solar cells and other devices that turn light into energy.

What led you to study electrical engineering?

If we want to have a sustainable society, we need a sustainable energy source. Our comfort level—everything we depend on now nowadays—completely relies on electricity. How do we sustainably and consistently get this energy that will allow our civilization to thrive? 

I looked into studying environmental engineering, but it seemed like it was more policy than hands-on, and I wanted to build stuff. So I decided electrical engineering was the way to go. 

Why do solar panels interest you?

Solar panels have an important role in reducing greenhouse gas emissions and mitigating climate change. Yet some of the chemicals used in small amounts to make solar panels, such as hydrofloric acid, are dangerous. And then there is the energy required to make a solar panel. It takes 1 to 4 years of a solar panel’s use to repay that energy debt.

One of my life's goals is to find a way to sustainably produce a solar panel without the use of hazardous chemicals. I know it's possible. It's just a question of how we're going to get there.

Over the summer, you worked on a project that had to do with thermophotovoltaic cells. What are those?

A solar cell, also known as a photovoltaic cell, will absorb the sun's energy and produce electrical power. A solar panel is just a bunch of solar cells connected to one another. 

Regular photovoltaics use light from the visible spectrum and turn it into electricity. Thermophotovoltaics are different in that they use infrared light. That is a form of light we can’t see but is most often experienced by people in the form of radiated heat. It is the part of sunlight that warms you. You’re probably familiar with it from infrared goggles, which let you see warm things like humans and animals even when there is no visible light. 

Thermophotovoltaics could be used to take advantage of waste heat in places such as factories. You can capture some of that heat and turn it back into workable electricity for your factory, to make things a little more energy efficient. 

What did your project focus on?

One thermophotovoltaic application is converting the infrared radiation created by burning renewable flammable gases, such as hydrogen, into electrical power. To increase the efficiency of the conversion, we employ a selective emitter that is heated by the burning gas and then emits a narrower portion of the infrared spectrum at the thermophotovoltaic cell. It is a challenge, because the temperatures in this process are often over 1,000 degrees Celsius, which many materials will not survive.

For our experiment, we integrated iridium, a precious metal—in fact, the rarest element found on the surface of the earth—into the selective emitter and measured how much light was allowed through and how much was bounced back. The lab plans to publish a paper on our findings next year.

Are thermophotovoltaic cells already being used commercially? 

It’s in the development stages. But I think very soon they're going to be close to mass production. 

Thermophotovoltaics may one day be part of a sustainable energy grid. If power generated by renewable sources like solar and wind can be stored in heat reservoirs, thermophotovoltaics may be able to convert that energy back into electricity when it is needed, even when the sun isn’t shining, and the wind isn’t blowing.

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