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Catlin Gabel senior earns $25,000 for solar panel research

Ding's project aims to improve solar tech efficiency, cost


Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Catlin Gabel School senior Valerie Ding was recently awarded a $25,000 Davidson Fellows Scholarship for her engineering project related to solar panel technology.Valerie Ding wasn’t even born when solar panels evolved from a 20th century experimental concept into a leading alternative-energy technology.

The chronological discrepancy hasn’t stopped the Catlin Gabel School senior, however, from trying to improve them.

Her engineering concepts involving quantum-dot solar cells — to increase their efficiency while lowering the cost of solar panel designs — has earned the 17-year-old a $25,000 scholarship toward her college education through the Davidson Institute for Talent Development. The Bethany resident, one of only 20 U.S. students to receive a 2014 Davidson Fellowship, will visit Washington, D.C., on Sept. 26 for a ceremony to recognize her and the other Davidson scholarship recipients.

Her project, titled “Novel Next-Generation Multijunction Quantum Dot Solar Panel Designs Using Monte Carlo-Based Modeling,” investigates interactions between quantum dots and photons in multi-junction solar cells. The goal is identifying limiting factors of solar-cell efficiency.

“In laymen’s terms, I’m looking at how to make these solar panels better,” Ding said in an interview at Catlin Gabel on Northwest Barnes Road. “Number one, I’m looking at how to best design quantum-dot solar cells, which are little tiny dots in a matrix that are layered, and use the power of nano particles to harvest (solar) light.”

Ding utilized computational quantum physics, solar optics, and photon-electron interaction to design efficiency-enhancing solar technology through multi-junction quantum-dot solar cells. These techniques can be used to rapidly improve efficiencies of solar cells.

“I’m looking at new ways to combine the two technologies (multi-junction and quantum dots) in a synergistic approach,” she said. “The ideal is to combine high efficiency and low cost. That would be the best situation for buyers and producers.”

Ding’s project was inspired by a 2012 trip to Switzerland to visit the CERN physics laboratory, and later at a Stanford University group lab that works on quantum-dot solar cells. The visits introduced her to the concept of multi-junction quantum-dot solar cells. Enamored with exploring a solution to a challenging problem, she set out to help researchers find faster solutions.

“Around the world (researchers) are working on different parts,” she explained. “Both technologies need more refinement. The initial part is how to basically use one to complement the other. Alone, each one has problems.”

The Davidson Fellows Scholarship program offers $50,000, $25,000 and $10,000 college scholarships to students 18 or younger who create projects with “the potential to benefit society in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics, literature, philosophy,” and beyond, according to literature from the Reno, Nev.-based Davidson Institute. The scholarship has provided more than $5.8 million in funds to 246 fellows since its 2001 inception.

“The Davidson Institute is built on the belief that individuals who have extraordinary intelligence and talents, when encouraged and supported, can improve the quality of life for us all,” said Bob Davidson, Davidson Institute co-founder.

Veronica Ledoux, a science teacher at Catlin Gabel’s upper school, admitted Ding’s solar-panel experiments go beyond her own technical expertise.

“This is entirely her’s,” Ledoux said. “It’s good for her that I don’t know what’s going on and can’t give her the answers. It’s good for her to have to deal with reasoning ... If she can convince me this is a logical, well put together idea, I get to understand what’s going on and she gets to communicate through science.

“As high functioning and intelligent as she is, Valerie hasn’t lost the ability to communicate with a wide variety of people,” Ledoux added. “That’s something science needs more of.”

Ding has yet to decide where she’s going to college, but intends to keep her focus on seeking innovative solutions related to environmental conundrums such as efficient and sustainable energy sources.

“Ultimately, what I’m interested in is the ability to apply something I learn in school that I can expand on in my free time,” she said. “My ultimate goal is to make as tangible an impact as I can on the environment, so we can better conserve resources.

“That is what attracted me to engineering.”

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