Sandia LabNews

Wrong number leads to new way to collect solar power, Up-and-Coming Innovator recipient says

Wrong number leads to new way to collect solar power, Up-and-Coming Innovator recipient says

By Heather Clark

Greg Nielson (1749-2) could have been annoyed by a caller who telephoned him by mistake, thinking he was a different former Truman Fellow, but instead Greg engaged the man in conversation, and a collaboration was born.

“It was a wrong number, but I heard he was from the solar group and he was looking for another Truman Fellow, so I gave him the name and then said, ‘Actually, I have this idea. It could be useful for solar power,’” Greg says.

Five years later, Greg, the caller, Vipin Gupta (6124), and more than two dozen other researchers developed tiny glitter-sized photovoltaic (PV) cells that could revolutionize the way solar energy is collected and used.

ALL THAT GLITTERS — Greg Nielson is part of a team of Sandia researchers that developed glitter-sized photovoltaic cells that could revolutionize the way solar power is collected and used. Greg is a recipient of Sandia’s Up-and-Coming Innovator award. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Nielson is among 15 Sandians who were honored with the first Up-and-Coming Innovator awards this year at the Innovation and Intellectual Property Celebration at the Albuquerque Museum. They were nominated by their directors for displaying enormous potential for innovation, entrepreneurial talent, and their ability to develop unique solutions to complex scientific challenges.

A laboratory that values innovation

Div. 1000 VP and Chief Technology Officer Steve Rottler, who spoke at the ceremony that also honored new patent holders and researchers who received copyrights and licenses, welcomed efforts to make innovation part of the culture at the Labs.

“What we want as a key characteristic of our culture, meaning the attitude and behaviors of everybody who works at Sandia, is valuing innovation. We want to have a work environment and we want to have a laboratory that values and expresses innovation in everything that it does,” Steve said during his speech.

Encouraging younger researchers to be innovative is part of that effort, says Mark Allen of Intellectual Property Management Alliances & Licensing Dept. (1931).

Director Gil Herrera (1700) says he nominated Greg because of his intellectual leadership and his ability to work well with people, to manage a project, and to keep a team of about 30 people together.

“The complexity of modern-day inventions requires somebody who can broadly understand the concept and the components of the invention, as modern inventions tend to be made from integrated systems,” Gil says. “Greg is an outstanding example of how you do innovation into the future, as he combines this systems-level vision with excellent leadership and teamwork.”

The tiny PV cells are fabricated using microelectronic and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) techniques. They are expected to be less expensive and more efficient than current photovoltaic collectors.

Greg says he came up with the idea while talking with a friend, Mike Watts, a former Sandian who is now a professor at MIT. At the time, research had been done on how MEMS devices interacted with coherent light — for example, lasers — but the two researchers discussed looking into how MEMS devices interacted with incoherent light, like sunlight, Greg says.

Working at the boundaries

“At the time I started my PhD, I was realizing that working at the boundaries of MEMS, microsystems, and optics, there’s a lot of unexplored things there,” Greg says. “It’s really exciting because you are bringing these technologies together that are fairly new, so you can do things that just weren’t possible to do before. It’s fun. There’s a lot of creativity there.”

Because the solar cells are so small — about 20 microns thick — they are flexible, which has enormous advantages for manufacturing and efficiency.

Greg says his team is working on how to put solar glitter into products and hopes to create some functional demonstrations of solar glitter prototype systems, possibly within the next year.

Talking in his office, Greg pulls a container off the top of his desk that contains what looks like a bubble of oil with glitter inside it floating in water. Greg explains researchers are looking at self-assembled monolayers using different chemicals, so they can coat either the metal or the other face of the solar cell to orient the glitter in a certain direction.

“So basically you can get them sunny side up,” Greg says. “The reason this is cool is that we’re working to create a system where you use these very small solar cells as a sort of photovoltaic ink. We want to print them onto a flexible substrate or wherever we want, thousands at a time, like a Xerox copying process. We’ve made some progress down that path. We’ve done some things there that people have not done before.”

Working on self-assembly of cells

Greg says his team has been successful at working within the confines of current manufacturing techniques and improving the efficiency of the solar cells, but they are still working on the self-assembly of the cells.

Greg emphasizes that nearly 30 people worked on solar glitter, which has helped move the innovation along.

“Sandia is definitely a place where people are inclined to work together and that really does help,” Greg says. “You can come up with really great solutions in your own little area and that’s fantastic, but if you can bring together people from a variety of areas to come up with a solution, then that’s even more powerful.”

Greg first encountered Sandia as an undergraduate intern working with the Cubit Group, which works with an enabling technology for high-performance computer modeling and simulations. Rob Leland (1400) was his manager at the time and helped him consider different options for graduate school, Greg says.

After getting his bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Utah State University, Greg went to MIT, where he received a master’s in mechanical engineering and a doctorate in mechanical engineering with a focus on optical microsystems.

One of the first Truman Fellows

Greg was one of two researchers to become the first Truman Fellows at Sandia in 2004. He worked on improving the energy efficiency and performance of optical MEMS switching, which would make the switches more appealing for applications in, for example, computing or telecommunications.

Greg says he came up with some ideas that led to faster switching using less power. The result was a switch that operates at 225 nanoseconds and needs 22 volts, and was about 10 times faster than the fastest switch on the market at the time.

After the Truman Fellowship, Greg became a member of technical staff in the same organization.

Asked whether he views himself as an entrepreneur, Greg says he enjoys creating new things and solving problems.

 “Being able to spin Sandia’s technology out to companies, so that those things can be commercialized and benefit society, that’s great,” Greg says. “If at the end of my career, I had come up with some things that people find useful, I’d feel like I’d done good things.”