Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Failure is Beautiful Too

We knew even before the numbers showed up on the solar simulator screen that our solar cell was less than perfect. So despite initial illusions of grandeur (or just plain old optimism), having an efficiency of 0.34% was not a surprise.

The culprit behind our solar cell's weak performance was most likely our doctor-blading ineptitude. We practiced a couple of times with Elmer's glue and tape in lab, confident that we had the quick, smooth scraping motion down pat. Honestly, how hard could it really be?

Upon opening the bottle of dark reddish-purple titania paste, we were puzzled by the scarcity of paste. Whereas the Elmer's glue had been abundant and free flowing, there barely seemed to be any paste available to us for doctor-blading. We jammed the pipette tip into the pipette, bending the tip slightly, myself being under the impression that this would make things easier. After some futile scraping of the bottle walls and quite a few dabs onto the 4X4mm square, we decided that there was enough paste to begin doctor-blading.

We were horribly wrong.

There was, in fact, not enough paste and what resulted was a diagonal half-smear of dark purple that looked craggy and rather unattractive. We tried to salvage the failed attempt, reasoning that if we added more paste before the first layer dried, we still might be able to generate a smooth and even surface. More frantic poking around with the half-bent pipette tip did little to help alleviate the situation. Finally, quite on accident, the pipette tip was straightened and a marvelously large glob of purple paste was finally extracted and applied. This time around, the doctor-blading went smoothly. But it was too late. Our first mistake had already dried and despite a successful second layer following a round of baking, our square look suspiciously rough and not quite the same as the others.

The extent to which our square was not the same as the others became apparent as we were constructing our solar cells the next lab day and we viewed it under a microscope to measure surface area. Instead of a uniform purple square, our eyes were greeted with a lovely, fractured collection of over 4030 or so polygons. The cracks were so wide and extensive that it looked more like a map of a tiny town with lots and lots of winding roads cutting through each and every city block. Comparison with other squares was jarring.

There was something paradoxically beautiful about our solar cell though, despite its low efficiency and rather unconventional appearance. I attribute this to two things: 1) it looked kind of like a work of abstract art, if you're into that kind of thing, 2) there was a sense of pride in having crafted this tiny, cobbled-together little solar cell.

Though 0.34% was relatively low compared to other solar cells in the class, it was ultimately greater than 0.00%. You know what that means? It means we successfully turned sunlight into electricity! Sure, we weren't the best solar cell out there, but we did something right, and we were able to apply what we were learning to create a final, working product.

The great part about 20.109 lab is that even as we are learning all of these new concepts about systems engineering or materials engineering, we are also able to interact with these ideas in a hands-on way. My favorite parts of class are when we are performing procedures in lab, and this last module is perhaps my favorite because of its tangible nature. Not only are we gathering data, like we had in previous modules, but we are making something.

Not only are we making something, but we are taking biology (phages) and using it in ways that we might not have initially thought possible (to generate electricity). That's one reason why I ultimately chose to major in course 20. I didn't want to just investigate how biology works. I wanted to be able to apply it in new and innovative ways to solve problems.

Even though we may have failed in some regards, we succeeded in our efforts to create something useful out of something else entirely and I think that's a beautiful thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.