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Summer 2014 Blog - Alison Ong

Alison Ong is spending the summer at the Academic Sinica in Taiwan

August 2, 2014

I can’t believe my time in Taiwan is already over—two months truly flew by! In this time, I have learned so much about solar cells, lab work, and life at a research institution. But I have also formed many lasting relationships with my lab mates and experienced many different aspects of Taiwan’s culture. In lab, my tests really came together during the final two weeks. I successfully tested different ratios of FL and NTD-2 dye. My goal was to find the ratio of these two cosensitizers that yielded the highest efficiency. Preliminary tests showed that a 2:8 ratio of NTD-2:FL worked best, and my further tests found that a 1:9 ratio worked even better. During my last few days, I also conducted similar tests using NTD-4 instead of NTD-2. Professor Lin recommended trying this dye even though it is less efficient than NTD-2. It absorbs at a higher wavelength range, so the wider overall range for capturing light may make up for the lost efficiency. Though my tests didn’t show that NTD-4 performed better, it was still a valuable and instructive investigation to see the relative effects of an efficient single dye versus a wider absorption range.

Once I delivered my final presentation to the group at the weekly group meeting, I could hardly believe that my lab work at Academia Sinica was done. The last day was quite a bittersweet experience—my lab mates are some of the kindest people I’ve ever met, and I was sad to say goodbye. I look up to all of them as mentors and guides, but also see them as close friends. And when I left, I was nearly literally overwhelmed by their generosity—they gave me so many Taiwanese desserts to take back to the US, I had trouble carrying it all on the plane!

During these last couple weeks, I’ve also been trying to participate in many memorable cultural activities. One highlight was spending a rejuvenating afternoon drinking tea at the Wistaria Tea House, a famous meeting spot for Taipei’s political dissidents, literati, and academics. Another great experience was visiting Yehliu Geopark, known for its unusual rock formations. And, perhaps most importantly, I loved revisiting all the best restaurants and night markets in Taipei that I’ve found over the course of two months. I’ll miss so many foods here, from Taipei’s 20 cent dumplings, to delicious bowls of beef noodle soup, to soft and creamy almond tofu, to melt-in-your-mouth mango shaved snow.

I will certainly always remember my summer at Academia Sinica with fondness. I hope to stay in contact with all my new friends at the Institute of Chemistry; if they ever visit the United States, I hope that I’ll be able to give them as great an experience in my country as I’ve had in Taiwan.

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Zai Jian, Taiwan! 


July 16, 2014

So much has happened over the past couple weeks. I think I’ve really started getting into the rhythm of work here—it’s hard to believe that my internship will be ending soon. I have some exciting progress to report on my project. After spending time learning the basics of how to fabricate a photoanode, and how to fabricate a solar cell, I began testing various dyes and combinations of dye. During my initial attempts, my solar cells yielded a lower efficiency than expected, which I found frustrating. But with my mentor’s help, correcting a problem in my cutting technique, and more practice, my solar cell fabrication skills have since improved significantly. Once my cells worked more reliably, I learned that by examining the voltage, current, and area of the photoanode, I can calculate the maximum efficiency for a solar cell using any given dye.

The bulk of my experimentation focuses on cosensitizers, which entails various ratios of two dyes. Dr. Hung found that a 2:8 ratio of NTD-2 to FL dye worked well, so he asked me to synthesize and test ratios of 0.5:9.5, 1:9, and 1.5:8.5. I recently completed the first round of testing; it seems that 0.5:9.5 yields the best efficiency, then 1:9, and so on. However, since all the efficiencies were close, I will be conducting a second round of testing soon to determine a definitive ranking. I hope my results will be good, and that I will be able to contribute a significant amount towards this investigation of cosensitizers.

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Soaking the photoanodes in jars of dye in preparation for fabrication of dye-sensitized solar cells.

My mentor has been very kind to me, both inside and outside of the lab. He even invited another lab mate and me over to his home in Taoyuan one Saturday to meet other PhDs and Postdocs. We toured Chung Yuan University, where many of them go to school, and visited the nearby night market for dinner. I am so grateful that all these older students have welcomed a newcomer like me.

Actually, I think my lab in general is full of extremely welcoming and generous people. When I mentioned I was interested in seeing Longshan temple, Ryan, a recent PhD graduate in the lab, took me there himself, and explained all the proper customs in detail as we paid our respects to various deities. On another occasion, a couple lab mates organized an all-day group outing that included the Jinguashi Gold Museum, Jiufen Old Street (the inspiration for some of the settings in Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away), and the famous night market at Jilong. Recently, my lab mate Mark invited Grace and me over to his home to try different varieties of tea from his grandparents’ own tea plantation. And the lab even surprised me with a whole chocolate cake for my 20th birthday!

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Exploring Jiufen Old Street with the lab group.

Grace and I have been going on many cultural adventures independently, too. On one particularly memorable day, we first visited the Suho Memorial Paper Museum, where we learned about the ancient Chinese origins of paper and got to make our own sheet; for lunch, we dined on soup dumplings called xiao long bao, the specialty at the world-famous restaurant Din Tai Fung; and in the evening, we joined over 10,000 Taiwanese citizens in watching the annual free performance of Cloud Gate, the premier dance company in Taiwan.

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Me with my handmade paper!

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Watching the incredible Cloud Gate National Dance Theatre of Taiwan.

And I can’t forget the evening we went to Pingxi, famous for its sky lanterns. In addition to lucky messages and blessings, we both made sure to decorate the huge lantern by drawing the large script “Cal” and sketching Oski.

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Go bears!


 

June 29, 2014

 

It seems incredible that I am nearly at the halfway point of my internship. On one hand, the past month has really flown by. On the other hand, I think I have already experienced substantial growth in terms of my lab abilities, and feel quite comfortable in Taipei (bug bites not included). The first two weeks focused on introductory material and teaching me the procedures for basic fabrication and testing; during these next two weeks, my mentor, Dr. Hung, felt I was ready to begin preparing the photoanodes on my own. They take about 3–4 days per batch, and while my initial attempts were far sloppier than his, I have been striving each day to improve my technique. Eventually, he approved a few of my plates and I had the opportunity to put together the entire solar cell with minimal help.

As I worked to perfect my fabrication technique, Dr. Hung, Professor Lin, and I began to discuss more specific experiments I could help conduct. Since the dyes used in dye-sensitized solar cells only absorb a limited range of light wavelengths, there is a lot of interest in co-sensitizers, or combinations of dye that would expand how much energy can be captured. They seem to have found some very promising materials, and I am looking forward to contributing to this project over the next few weeks.

Besides my responsibilities related to fabricating solar cells, I also had my “midterm examination” this week. Professor Lin holds a weekly group meeting where various lab members give 10–20 minute PowerPoint presentations on their progress or literature reviews of cutting-edge research in the world of dye-sensitized solar cells. He asked me to give a presentation at Thursday’s meeting, detailing what I had learned about various types of solar cells as well as introducing some of the solar cell research at UC Berkeley. As a newcomer and an undergraduate, I will admit I felt slightly intimidated presenting material on solar cells to a room full of master’s students and postdocs; however, once again, I found everyone in the lab group to be both supportive and helpful, as they attentively listened to my presentation.

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Me and some of the recent graduates at the Institute of Chemistry at Academia Sinica

This past Friday was a half day at the lab, because the graduating master’s students all had their Defense of Master’s Thesis Examination at National Taiwan University. I met one of the lab’s PhD students on the NTU campus in the late afternoon, where he kindly showed me around NTU’s solar cell lab. It was quite fascinating to compare the similarities and differences between NTU and Academia Sinica’s procedures for solar cell fabrication. Then, he brought me to a nearby restaurant to enjoy a Chinese-style banquet with the rest of the lab group in celebration of the master’s students’ successes. A relaxing evening filled with excellent food was the perfect way to end the week.

Each weekend I try to explore Taipei and the surrounding area. Last weekend, Grace and I went to Tamsui, a coastal area that vaguely reminded me of Fisherman’s Wharf in my hometown of San Francisco. And this past weekend, we took the train out of Taipei City for the first time, to visit the nearby town of Yingge. Yingge is known for its pottery, and its streets are lined with local artisans’ ceramic stores. 

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Strolling down the picturesque Old Street in Yingge

Inside the Yingge Ceramics Museum, I was pleasantly surprised to see the great emphasis they placed on ceramics in relation to chemistry (for example, the composition of coloured glazes or demonstrating how a reduction or oxidation kiln environment transforms the appearance of pottery) and technology (featuring 3D-printed pottery and piezoelectronics). I never knew this before, but silicon counts as ceramics, so the museum featured a small section on silicon wafers and solar panels. As an engineer who loves art and comes from an artistic family, seeing elements of my research on solar cells pop up in a museum dedicated to ceramics felt wonderful and strangely satisfying. It is certainly a highlight of my journey so far.


June 15, 2014

It has been about two weeks since I first arrived in Taiwan to begin my internship at Academia Sinica in Taipei. In this short amount of time I feel that I have already learned so much and have been exposed to so many new things. My internship placement is with Professor Jiann T’suen Lin’s lab group, which researches dye-sensitized solar cells. During the first week of the internship, I completed extensive safety training and read numerous journal articles on solar cell technology to supplement my background knowledge of the subject. By Friday of that week, I was ready to observe the steps to fabricate and test an actual dye-sensitized solar cell. Under the guidance of those working in the lab, I learned how to put the components of a solar cell together and conduct various tests to measure its efficiency.

On Monday of my second week, I was given the chance to put together a solar cell, given an already-dyed plate. I followed the same procedure and tests I had seen the previous Friday, which included performing an Electrochemical Impedance Spectroscopy (EIS) analysis and measuring the Incident Photo-to-Current Conversion Efficiency (IPCE). Over the course of the week, I began fabricating the components for my very own set of solar cells. After cutting, treating, and cleaning plates of conducting glass, I created a film made of Titanium Dioxide that was ready to be dyed. I find it truly exciting that I am not simply learning the principles behind a solar cell, but am actually creating one myself.

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Preparing plates for dye-sensitized solar cells

When not working directly on solar cells, my mentor kindly introduced me to his colleagues in the lab, exposing me to many fascinating experiments and testing methods. For example, one man was working on synthesis of porous materials; I got the chance to observe him in the Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM) room, studying the crystals that were produced in his reaction.

Though this is my first time in Taiwan and I am not fluent in Chinese, I have found every member of the lab to be welcoming, encouraging, and helpful. During lunch breaks, they have taken me to different restaurants, helped me expand my Chinese vocabulary, and given me advice about things to do in Taipei. One member in the lab group even took me and Grace—a fellow intern through the Cal Energy Corps—to see the Dragon Boat races on the Keelung River during the annual Dragon Boat Festival holiday.

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Trying out traditional tea service in Maokong

Outside of the lab, I have been using my weekends and evenings to explore various attractions around the city. From visiting monuments like the Sun Yat-Sen Memorial Hall, to admiring priceless artifacts at the National Palace Museum, to eating from local vendors at night markets, I am having a wonderful time getting to know Taipei. Recently, Grace and I visited the Taipei Zoo and rode on the Maokong gondola to sample some of the teahouses in the area. With so many adventures and new experiences to tell about already, I cannot wait to see what the coming weeks hold in store for both my research and cultural education.

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