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Eray Aydil: Sun Signs

In the senior high yearbook, his classmates voted him “most likely to be a professor.” As an undergraduate, he double majored in chemical engineering and materials science. Today, he’s a professor in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science.

Seems like Eray Aydil had a plan and made it happen, doesn’t it? Not according to him.

“I always loved finding things out, but I didn’t wake up one day and decide to be a professor or a scientist,” he said. “It was really just a series of accidents.”

He started his research career working on integrated circuits, but as serendipity would have it, one field led to another. In the early 2000s, Aydil and one of his graduate students at the University of Santa Barbara were getting some exciting results with dye-sensitized solar cells.

Aydil was hooked. “I started writing proposals and getting funding, so my entire research shifted from silicon and integrated circuit manufacturing to photovoltaics and solar cell research.”

In less than an hour, the sun provides enough energy to power our world for an entire year. At the same time, solar has seen the fastest growth as a source of renewable electricity. Accidental or otherwise, Aydil’s move toward solar research was a smart one with infinite potential.

“I always loved finding things out, but I didn’t wake up one day and decide to be a professor or a scientist. It was really just a series of accidents.”

--Eray Aydil

“If you look at the global installations of photovoltaic solar cells alone, it has been doubling every two and a half years for the past three or four decades," he said.

Yet, according to recent figures from the Institute for Energy Research, solar energy provides less than 1 percent of the total energy consumed in the U.S. and the world. In order for that number to increase, we must move closer to grid parity, or the point at which solar can generate electricity for the same cost or cheaper than coal or natural gas.

Aydil is optimistic, with good reason. States like California and Arizona have already approached the tipping point in terms of economic incentives to transition to solar. And researchers are responding to these growing demands with new, lower-cost materials.

“The one that I'm most excited about now is copper zinc tin sulfide, which we affectionately refer to as CZTS,” Aydil said. Unlike copper indium gallium diselenide (CIGS) solar cells, which are expensive to make due to the scarcity of indium, all of the elements in CZTS cells are abundant and nontoxic.

Right now, Aydil and his students are testing the properties of these solar cells in the lab, figuring out ways to address problems such as cracks, and producing thin films on a large scale in the lab. The goal is to develop a manufacturing process that could lead to a viable startup.

While the University of Minnesota is on the forefront of CZTS research, there are a few competitors, including IBM. But Aydil says that’s all part of discovery — the fact is that “everyone builds on someone else’s idea. That is how science works; we build a wall one brick at a time.”

“There’s always someone who’s asking the same or a related question as you are,” Aydil said. “But once there’s a spark of an idea, it spreads like wildfire.”

The key to spreading good ideas and turning them into reality? Aydil believes his students are the best vehicle.

“You have a higher probability of making an impact through your students than yourself. I know how much time research takes, how many challenges there are. But these students don’t know any better. When they walk through that door, they’re ready to change the world.”