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Jason Bloking was working in Silicon Valley when he recognized the incredible potential of solar energy. He decided to leave his comfortable engineering job and jump back into academia. Now a fifth-year Ph.D. student in the Materials Science and Engineering Department at Stanford University, Jason works with researchers Alan Sellinger and Michael McGehee on GCEP-funded research on new materials to improve the performance of organic solar cells.
Jason also volunteers as a GCEP Graduate Student Representative who organizes a number of activities for GCEP students, including the well-received summer student speaker series. He was recently featured on the Silicon Valley Buzz TV program about GCEP energy innovations. Out of 67 entries, his poster about his solar research was selected as the best one of the 2011 GCEP Research Symposium.
Jason took some time out to answer a few questions for GCEP
How did you decide to switch from Silicon Valley engineer to full-time Ph.D. candidate?
While I enjoyed the engineering I was doing in the semiconductor industry, I felt that pursuing a Ph.D. in materials science would provide additional value and the incredible experience of conducting a major research project. Additionally, I had always been excited and motivated by using technology to help solve problems related to climate change. Stanford provided an environment where those two goals could be jointly pursued.
How important is developing new technologies to solving the world’s energy challenges?
I firmly believe that developing new technologies along with incorporating policy changes are critical pieces of the puzzle to solve the world’s energy challenges. Without either one of these developments, it is likely that problems related to climate change will continue to get worse until it is too late. As an added benefit, developing technology to address the issues of climate change should greatly benefit economic growth in those countries that pursue it the earliest.
Tell us about your research and how it could possibly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
Thanks to silicon solar cell technology, everyone is now familiar with solar panels, whether they are placed in a solar farm or on commercial or residential rooftops. However, the up-front monetary cost required to install them is quite large. The research we are conducting here is to find new, cheaper organic materials that can be used to replace silicon as the active material in solar cells. These materials have the potential to allow solar panels to be manufactured on flexible plastic substrates, significantly reducing the cost of installation on top of the cost savings in materials and materials processing. With cheaper solar panels, the initial barrier of high up-front cost would be removed and more people could install solar panels on their homes.
Tell us about your participation in GCEP.
When I was evaluating graduate schools, I was aware of the efforts they had on campus to promote and fund research in the renewable energy sector. Then and now, Stanford is leading in renewable energy research opportunities, and GCEP is a significant part of that. I have been attending GCEP seminars and symposia since my first year on campus and was lucky enough to be able to work on a GCEP-funded research project beginning in my third year. This involvement led me to take a more active role with GCEP as one of three Graduate Student Representatives, charged with fostering more interaction amongst the students working on GCEP-funded research. I’m most proud of our efforts last summer to launch a weekly student speaker series that gave students the opportunity to present their energy research to a broad technical audience. The best speakers in this forum were then chosen to present at the annual GCEP Symposium, which we hope will end up as a highlight of their graduate careers here.
What has been most enlightening or rewarding about your time at Stanford so far?
The most rewarding part of my time here at Stanford so far has been my interactions with my fellow students, both in my own department and outside as well. I believe that Stanford has a unique environment where students in all areas (engineering, humanities, medicine, business, law, etc.) get together and share their ideas. Interdisciplinary isn’t just a term tossed around loosely here; it’s well integrated into the psyche of all Stanford students.
What are your career plans after you receive your Ph.D.?
Before I came to Stanford, I had the opportunity to work in a large technology company in an established industry. Part of the reason I chose to return to academia was to learn new skills that would help me to pursue a different path after graduation. I would love to experience the kind of fast-paced environment that exists in a smaller, startup-phase company in a growing and expanding industry, such as renewable energy. Of course, there is always the possibility that with the right business idea, being part of a founding team would be an experience I would be reluctant to pass up.
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