Guest Blogger: John Oxaal

by Michael Mullaney on September 23, 2011

(Mechanical engineering doctoral student John Oxaal wrote this excellent post for The Approach. It’s about his time this summer at a prestigious fellowship in Spain with three other Rensselaer students. Enjoy!)

On June 6th, I traveled with three other RPI students (Michelle Decepida ’13, Adriana Rojas ’12, and PhD candidate Eduardo Castillo) to Madrid for an eight-week collaborative research project at the Institude for Microelectronics in Madrid, Spain. The research focused on the development of thermoelectric materials, or materials which generate electricity when there is a flow of heat through them—very similar to solar cells which generate electricity when light flows through them. These materials have the potential to provide vast amounts of energy and have expanded the diversity of clean energy technologies.

We had two primary research goals: 1) develop a procedure for producing high quality films of bismuth telluride on a silicon substrate via pulsed electrodeposition, and 2) design and install the experimental set-up required to measure the figure of merit of the films.  The thermoelectric effect that drives the power generation capability of these materials is improved remarkably when the material is dimensionally very small— like a thin film from 100-5,000 nanometers. Thin film technology is generally very expensive; however, the same process used to plate car wheels with chrome metal (electrodeposition) can be used to deposit thermoelectric materials too! Electrodeposition is a well known technology and much cheaper to do than other thin film methods. Therefore, our research is focused on optimizing the electrodeposition procedure to produce high quality thermoelectric films.

The figure of merit for thermoelectric devices is a standard measure how well they perform. Current commercial products have a figure of merit just below 1. In order for this technology to be viable for mass production, the figure of merit needs to be around 3. Measuring the figure of merit is fairly easy for large materials, but for thin films it is quite difficult, hence it is an active area of research among scientists.

In addition to conducting research we traveled around Spain and visited many of the most famous areas here. The museums in Madrid have many famous paintings from Spanish artists such as Picasso and Salvador Dali (so incredible to see in person)!

Additionally, the San Fermin festival was from July 7-14 in Pamplona—it’s the festival where the famous “running of the bulls” occurs every year. Michelle, a junior engineering student at RPI, and I traveled to the festival for a weekend and joined the people of the town in the celebrating the event. Earnest Hemmingway was right about what he said of the Matadors, they are very brave! Eduardo and Adriana (senior engineering student) traveled with us to a hostel, the first time for all of us, and met a lot of really cool people from all over the world (Sweden, Australia, Denmark, England)—and they all spoke English too.

We learned a lot about the Spanish culture during our stay. Thirty minute coffee breaks are a common thing. Everyone looks forward to them so it’s rude not to invite everyone else in the lab when you go for a coffee. The students here are all graduate students or postdocs. They were very welcoming and made our stay here so enjoyable. We became fast friends and found ourselves wishing we could stay longer.

To read more about the faculty adviser of these students, Diana Borca-Tasciuc, click here and see her 3° interview on The Approach here.

For further reading about international experiences and study abroad at Rensselaer, check out my story here from a recent issue of the Institute’s Alumni Magazine.