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Monday, March 14, 2011

Unfavorable geometries in organic solar cell molecules

I’ve been remiss in posting lately, but at least I have plenty of excuses. My dad was visiting for a week at the beginning of March and we were busy carting him all over Los Angeles to see the sights - Universal Studios Hollywood, UCLA, and an urban farm and produce stand near us called Tapia Brothers. We took him there once to pick up some fruit and he decided they have the best strawberries he’s ever tasted.

One of the reasons that he came to visit was for our housewarming, another of the things keeping me from posting lately. Housewarmings are nice because it is a great motivator to finish up the ‘moving in’ process that can sometimes drag out indefinitely. Getting things tidied up can be time consuming though.

Then there is school, the Tuesday after our housewarming I had a midterm. I was convinced that this test would stymie me so I studied as much as I was able. But in the actual event it seemed pretty easy. Now I’m a little paranoid that it only seemed easy because I completely misunderstood it, and overlooked it’s challenging intricacies, but I think that is just the little devil on my shoulder trying to psych me out.

As for actual science, last week one of my press releases was distributed. It is for research published in Science magazine on controlling and observing complex chemical reactions. The team fabricated a nanostructure to precisely fit two molecules, and then tailed the chemistry to attract those molecules. They arranged everything so that the molecules would come together, when a light was shown on them, in an orientation not typical naturally.

Molecules have certain preferred geometric alignments, and these alignments affect the reactions that occur when the molecules combine. By creating the geometrically unfavorable alignment, in this case with photosensitive molecules used in organic solar cells, the researchers were able to study a reaction that could lead to more efficient conversion of sunlight into energy. They also succeeded in building a one-of-its-kind scanning tunneling microscope to observe the resulting reaction. Setting up interesting molecular reactions is great, but it doesn’t accomplish much unless you can closely study the reaction.

As always when I start working on a release, I took a stab at reading the academic paper to see what the research was about. But this paper was pretty dense chemistry. After staring at it for about half an hour I was sure they were were working with molecules, and not much else beyond that.

Two of the authors of the paper were kind enough to meet with me to explain, in small words, the research. As seems to be a somewhat common occurrence in academia, these two researchers, from the same lab, are also married. The husband is from the U.S. and the wife is from South Korea.

While the wife speaks fluent English, she seems diligent about trying to perfect her communication style. With this particular research the wife played a much bigger roll, but it seemed to be easier for the husband to translate the work into non-scientific English terms. This did not deter her though, she kept shushing his attempts to help. She was determined to successfully explain her work, and I must say, I was impressed by her patience in explaining the concepts to me.

Episodes like that are part of the reason I really enjoy my job. It is one thing to write about such cutting-edge research, but I find that getting to know the people behind the experiments can be just as interesting.

Check out the full release in the UCLA Newsroom, I must say I’m quite fond of the opening line.

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