Two physics students will continue research this summer, adding four solar-powered golf carts to Georgia College’s current fleet of two. In addition, they hope to make the current model more environmentally-friendly and use “aerodynamics” to reduce the time it takes to charge the battery.
"We're trying to improve the run times, so you don't have to charge it so much, and it runs longer," said senior physics major Nowsherwan Sultan of Pakistan. "Our research here is to make solar cells more efficient, so they can collect more energy. We still have to plug them in because, right now, they're not that efficient."
His partner Nick Palmer, a senior from Forsyth County, Georgia, said they’ll look into using multiple layers of solar cells to convert sunlight into energy. Right now, it’s common to use only a single layer. By putting one flexible solar cell – “a few nanometers thick” – upon another, students hope to collect more light and energy from the sun. Everything has to be done with exact precision, Palmer said, because they’re working with “atomic resolutions” – expensive material so tiny, a scanning electron microscope is necessary to see it.
This summer, they hope to outfit four golf carts with higher-wattage solar panels purchased with a $7,700 grant from Georgia College’s Office of Sustainability. Another $6,000, providing stipends for researchers, was funded by MURACE – Mentored Undergraduate Research and Creative Endeavors, an arm of Georgia College that financially supports student projects and encourages undergraduate research.
Two high school students will join the research team June 4 through July 13 as part of the Scientists Academy Program through Georgia College's Science Education Center.
Dr. Hasitha Mahabaduge, assistant professor of physics, started this research at Georgia College in 2016. That fall, two of his students – Anderson Kendrick and Dillon Vogt – equipped the first golf cart with a solar panel. But it doesn’t go far and takes about 26 hours for the battery to recharge.
Students hope to improve upon this by experimenting with a movable solar panel. Tilting the panel to different angles, they hope to collect more sunlight and increase running times, while lowering the need for charging. They’ll also tinker with tire pressure and locate spots on campus where carts can be parked to take in the most optimal light. Students will use tin to make solar cells for panels. Tin is more environmentally friendly than lead, the material most often used.
The team has big plans for an “Electra-cart infrastructure” or solar-charging station on campus, as well. It’ll have four solar panels with about 1200 watts of power – enough to charge one or two carts in a relatively short amount of time. Full charging stations could require about 25 solar cells.
Sultan and Palmer said they feel privileged to do research that’s normally reserved for graduate students at other universities. Solar coincides with many topics they’re learning about in physics. The responsibility and experience they’ve gained in the lab will open the door to many opportunities, like helping them stand out on applications for graduate school.
Contributing to a professor’s research makes Palmer want to work harder and do better. If students make the effort, he said, Mahabaduge puts in just as much. The group is constantly looking for more grants. They keep up with new trends and properties in physics, like the new mysterious material, graphene.
“I don’t feel like I’m going to go into the real world someday,” Palmer said. “I feel like I’m already working in a real-world situation.”
Spencer Shortt of Decatur, a senior double major in mathematics and physics, interrupted his part in Mahabaduge's solar research to do a REU – Research Experiences for Undergraduates. This summer, he'll be part of the University of Florida's International REU for gravitational physics in Birmingham, England.
Doing solar research with Mahabaduge has been the better part of his college years, Shortt said.
“The degree doesn’t really start to make sense until you can start applying it.” he said. “Here, we can definitely apply it. And it’s cool too, because we’re not just doing rote memorization. We’re actually getting to see it and do it.”
Palmer and Sultan received two of four grants funded by MURACE for research this summer, said Doreen Sams, marketing professor and faculty coordinator for MURACE. The others were for senior biology major Katherine Moen of Decatur, mentored by Dr. Kasey Karen, and senior psychology major Sydney Taylor of Dacula, mentored by Dr. Tsu-Ming Chiang.
MURACE started in 2012, funding student travel to REUs and conferences throughout the year. In that time, 30 students have received summer research grants, 1,242 were funded to present research at conferences and more than 364 got travel grants. MURACE also provides faculty, students and staff a no-cost membership with the “Council on Undergraduate Research” (CUR), which provides multiple training and research opportunities.
“MURACE strives to move mentored scholarship forward as a transformative learning experience for Georgia College students,” Sams said. “It is one leg of the GC Journeys, and a strategic endeavor toward preeminence.”