Program Builds Connections between American and African Scientists
Founded in 2012 by Veronica Augustyn, an assistant professor of Materials Science & Engineering at North Carolina State University (Raleigh, N.C.), SciBridge is an organization dedicated to encouraging sustainable energy research collaborations between U.S. and African universities. Augustyn and SciBridge Vice-Chair and Africa Organizer John Paul Eneku, an assistant lecturer in physics at Makerere University (Kampala, Uganda), have coordinated a team of educators, researchers, students and volunteers who last year delivered nearly 30 solar cell experiment kits to students at nine African universities.
More recently, Ocean Optics donated to SciBridge a Red Tide UV-Vis spectrometer, the program’s first instrument donation and “something that is desperately needed in our Ugandan and Ethiopian partner universities,” says Professor Augustyn. The spectrometer will be used by students at Makerere University to characterize the absorption properties of naturally sourced dyes for dye-sensitized solar cells.
At the time of this writing, the Red Tide spectrometer had just arrived at Makerere – an appropriate time to catch up with Professor Augustyn about the SciBridge program and renewable energy research:
Ocean Optics: What inspired you to start SciBridge?
Augustyn: I had a very unique opportunity to attend a National Science Foundation-funded materials research school in Ethiopia as a graduate student. The research school brought together young U.S. and African scientists to learn about materials for renewable energy technologies. The experience was fantastic, and we learned about the latest research in this area from world experts who volunteered their time to teach us. I was inspired by the new ideas, but also left with a deep sense of unfairness that while I would be going back to a fully stocked lab in the U.S., my African colleagues would face drastically different environments that would not be able to support such research.
Ocean Optics: Why is materials science important for students in Africa to explore?
Augustyn: Countries in sub-Saharan Africa have an opportunity to develop their energy infrastructure in a more sustainable manner than developed nations. The limiting factor in most sustainable energy technologies such as solar cells, batteries or electrolyzers are the materials. To develop better technologies, you need to understand how to better engineer the materials. The ultimate goal of SciBridge is to enable African scientists to innovate in their home countries, for the benefit of their home countries.
Ocean Optics: How much opportunity have you had to interact with the students that SciBridge is working with?
Augustyn: I had the chance to meet my SciBridge African collaborator, John Paul Eneku of Makerere University, on a couple of occasions thanks to the Joint U.S.-Africa Materials Initiative. Also, thanks to funding from N.C. State, John Paul will be visiting my research labs this summer and we will work on expanding our collaboration. However, I have not had the chance to interact very much with the students that SciBridge is helping, primarily because travel to Africa is expensive and Internet connectivity is spotty, so many of our webinars have had to be cancelled. We are working to change this and develop more interactions between the U.S. and African students.
Ocean Optics: The students at Makerere will use the Red Tide spectrometer to characterize absorbance properties of dyes for solar cells. What are they looking for with this data?
Augustyn: The students are going to be testing different natural dyes from their local environments for use in dye-sensitized solar cells. The instrument will be used to characterize the absorption properties of the dyes and then correlate these with the solar cell performance.
Ocean Optics: Even as the public’s interest in sustainable energy ebbs and flows with the price of gasoline, the scientific community continues its research. How far has the world progressed in lessening its dependence on fossil fuels? How is spectroscopy helping?
Augustyn: We are living at a time of unprecedented CO2 levels in the atmosphere. Overall, I do not think the world has progressed significantly in lessening its dependence on fossil fuels. The low cost of oil over the past few years has minimized the importance of sustainable energy for many people in the U.S. On the other hand, during my time in Ethiopia, I found that people there were acutely aware of climate change probably because the society is more agrarian, more connected to the land than in developed countries, and the rising temperatures cannot be ignored when few have the luxury of constant temperatures from air conditioning.
However, there are signs that things are changing and that people are starting to embrace alternative energy technologies. Companies such as Tesla are bringing electric cars to the masses not by telling them that these cars are better for the environment, but by making electric cars that are really cool. The U.S. has installed more energy storage in the power grid in 2015 than at any other time — this is for storing electricity from solar cells — and this is expected to grow even more in coming years.
Materials are the primary limitations in sustainable energy technologies — they’re too expensive, toxic, unstable, inefficient, etc. Characterizing the electronic and optical properties of materials via spectroscopy is critical to understanding exactly how we can make them, and sustainable technologies, better. The scientific community has really thrown its brainpower into the area of sustainable energy, and students are eager to tackle these challenges. I am optimistic that we will find ways to decrease our dependence on fossil fuels as well as mitigate their environmental effects.
[Editor’s note: Discover spectroscopy applications involving sustainable energy technologies.]