Brilliant 10 list, holds a solar cell test prototype with a microscale lens array fastened above it. Together, the cell and lens help create a concentrated photovoltaic unit. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

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Sandia LabNews

Greg Nielson named to Popular Science Brilliant 10 list


Greg Nielson

BRILLIANT! — Greg Nielson, just named to Popular Science’s annual Brilliant 10 list, holds a solar cell test prototype with a microscale lens array fastened above it. Together, the cell and lens help create a concentrated photovoltaic unit. (Photo by Randy Montoya)

Greg Nielson (1719) has been selected by Popular Science magazine for one of its 2012 “Brilliant 10” awards — “a roundup of the 10 most promising young scientists working today [in North America].” Winners of this designation have gone on to win the Fields Medal (considered the Nobel prize of mathematics) and MacArthur ‘genius’ awards, according to a congratulatory note from the magazine’s editor.

Greg, a former Truman Fellow, was selected for helping lead the Sandia effort to create solar cells the size of glitter. Said Sandia Labs Director Paul Hommert, “This recognition of Greg’s groundbreaking contributions is testimony to his innovative spirit. It also reflects our broader Laboratory commitment to nurturing outstanding scientific achievement.”

Said Steve Rottler, Science and Technology VP 1000 and Chief Technology Officer, “This award confirms what those of us who work with Greg already know — he is an incredibly gifted engineer who is developing an innovative solution to a complex challenge facing society. We are very proud of Greg and the accomplishments of his team.”

The Sandia application sent in support of Greg and his team pulled no punches: “Greg Nielson and his team have created a new class of photovoltaic technology. The tiny pieces, each the size of a piece of glitter, sharply contrast with the so-called ‘bricks’ used by the photovoltaic industry. The microscale nature of the solar cells — each about the width of a human hair, and easily formed in the hundreds of thousands by widely used computer-chip fabrication techniques — offer significant benefits not available with traditional large-scale solar cells. The unique approach converts sunlight to electricity more efficiently. It increases the total power output available per unit area. It significantly lowers the cost for solar power. Most remarkably, the cells can be built into flexible products like tents, bags, or clothing, or embedded directly into more sturdy structures to become the outer shell of cell phones, tablets, or laptops. This is because the tiny units can be formed into three-dimensional structures with very sharp curves and corners, yet still be made of high-efficiency photovoltaic cells. No other PV technology possesses this capability.”

A paradigm-shifting success?

Support for Greg’s nomination came from a variety of sources external to Sandia.

Joseph H. Simmons, professor of Optical Sciences and of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Arizona, wrote, “I have seen many photovoltaic . . . technologies. Sandia’s microscale photovoltaics are one with the most innovative approach and the best chance for a paradigm-shifting success.”

Wrote Stephen J. Fonash, Kunkle Chair Professor of Engineering Sciences at Pennsylvania State University, “I have seen few truly new visions for improving solar cell costs and efficiency; Sandia’s microscale photovoltaics is the most recent one I place into this special category.”

Wrote Jeffrey H. Hunt, an American Physical Society and Boeing Technical Fellow, “[Solar] applications to mobile ground units, airborne platforms, and space assets continue to depend on engineering the power to fit the system, rather than logically fitting the power to the application requirements. . . . The glitter cells are the only technology capable of bridging this important technical gap.”

Indications that Greg was a high achiever came early. At the age of 7, he had read all the children’s books in the Bountiful, Utah, public library. His mother, a strong supporter of education, talked the librarian into granting Greg an adult card so he could get more information on the insects and birds he saw around him.

His dad, now retired and working five hours a week at the Ace Hardware in Bountiful, is so proud of his son’s achievements that he relays news of them to store customers.

Supportive parents were supplemented by one of Greg’s high school classes, taught by a millionaire physics teacher who had made his money by inventing a machine that heated pop bottles and stretched them at state fairs. “He taught for the fun of it,” Greg says, “and every day or so he’d make up some experiment.”

The experiments included blowing up a car battery, filling a 15- foot-diameter weather balloon with helium and letting it fly upward, and rolling bowling balls off the school roof in attempts to hit a target below.

“The experiments wouldn’t have been OSHA-approved, but they influenced me significantly,” says Greg.

‘I love coming up with a solution’

Because of the influence of his physics teacher, Greg signed up for mechanical engineering when he went to college at Utah State. “I’m not that interested in discovering new scientific theory,” he says. “It’s when I hear of a problem that needs an engineering solution that my mind goes crazy. I love coming up with a solution.”

At Utah State, a telecommuting Sandian suggested Greg apply to Sandia for a summer internship. He worked for two summers under Rob Leland in the CUBIT group, doing software for mesh generation. It didn’t hurt his application that he was already — though still an undergraduate — working as a Utah State teaching assistant and also as a research assistant, testing rockets that combined solid fuel with liquid/gas oxidizers. The hybrid process enabled rocket propulsion mechanisms to be turned on and off, rather than burn without pause to the end of their solidfuel lives.

“The college didn’t have a lot of graduates, so they took advantage of undergraduates,” Greg says modestly.

He travelled to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology for his master’s and doctoral degrees. The degrees were in mechanical engineering, but because he was working under a thesis advisor interested in volume holography (creating a holographic lens to provide more information than could a physical lens under certain circumstances), he took courses in physics, mechanical and electrical engineering, and materials science, and ended by doing a thesis on optical micro- and nanostructures combined with MEMS (microelectromechanical systems). After completing a PhD, Greg was selected in the first crop of Sandia Truman Fellows.

“I had ideas about optical switching for MEMS devices I was excited about,” he says. “Sandia’s MEMS facilities seemed a fine site to work out the technology.”

But an unexpected conversation with Vipin Gupta (6124) changed Greg’s direction. Vipin had called Greg by mistake, looking for another Truman Fellow. “Vipin is willing to listen to people with crazy ideas,” Greg said. “It was extraordinary luck that we crossed paths.”

Greg at the time had envisioned a nonphotovoltaic way of converting sunlight into electricity through use of the piezoelectric effect. (When a piezoelectric material changes size, it creates a voltage.) Though he still thinks the premise could work, after many conversations with Vipin and others he settled on the more immediately practical idea that current solar photovoltaic generators “were using a lot of silicon they didn’t need to. With my background in microsystems, I saw they could save by a factor of 10 in materials cost.”

He credits his volunteer experience leading youth groups, Boy Scouts, and a church congregation for his ability to provide “steady pressure,” as he puts it, to move his projects forward.

“Another help,” he says, “is that many people feel strongly about solar and gravitate toward our project. They believe they are making a difference and I believe they are.”

Among those he cites for their helping in the earliest stage of the project, in addition to Vipin, are Jeff Nelson (1131), Murat Okandan, and Jose Luis Cruz-Campa (both 1719). “But there are many more on the team today.” Popular Science is expected to release its list of its 2012 selectees in its October issue, available in late September, along with sketches of the winners and their achievements.

Greg’s photovoltaic work has been supported by DOE’s Solar Energy Technology Program and Sandia’s Laboratory Directed Research & Development program.