Interview with Oliver Monti, Center for Interface Science: Solar Electric Materials
Jaroslaw Syzdek

Oliver Monti, principal investigator at the Center for Interface Science: Solar Electric Materials and one of the founders of the center.

His career and his research demonstrate the power of merging diverse ideas and diverse materials to do something more. A principal investigator looking specifically at material interfaces and one of the founders of the Center for Interface Science: Solar Electric Materials, known as CIS:SEM, Monti embraces the idea that the grass is not greener on the other side of the fence – it is green everywhere. In between teaching graduate and undergraduate physical chemistry courses at the University of Arizona and leading studies into solar electric materials, Monti spent some time sharing his thoughts on the power of thinking outside the box.

Let me start with asking you what exactly "Solar Electric Materials” are, and why should we care about them?

Solar electric materials are the active components of photovoltaic solar cells, amazing devices that convert sunlight into electricity. That means that once the panel is installed you get your electricity free and that you are producing no pollution – but, you still need to pay for that panel, and it takes energy to produce it. At present, the dominant technology based on silicon requires quite a bit of energy investment to build, equivalent to almost 4 years of its operation. Thin film, organic molecule-based panels could have this pay-back time shortened to about 1 year.

What is the main challenge?

For the longest time, people were concerned predominantly with the material at the heart of the solar cell. Other aspects, like interfaces, received much less attention. As efficiencies go up and new solar electric materials produce more and more current, those interfaces become bottlenecks limiting the performance of the device. We want to decipher that interface.

Have you been studying and working in this field for a long time?

Not at all. In college at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule in Switzerland, I was working on organometallic synthesis and catalysis, then high-resolution spectroscopy. When I moved to Oxford for my doctorate, I was studying gas phase photodissociation dynamics with spectroscopy. My postdoc was focused on microscopy, surface science and nanomaterials. With this broad background I was ready to take on a breadth of scientific challenges. Organic semiconductors and related devices appealed to me.

How did you become interested in science?

It all started with a general chemistry book that ended up in my hands when I was 15 years old. Now I'm doing surface science and ultrafast spectroscopy – totally in the realm of physics, but it's all interconnected. Being involved in a number of different fields before, it's appealing for me to work with a range of people across different disciplines.

Your background lets you bring a lot of different fields together, and it seems to be a major part of your center. Does your center's focus on integration help with your research?

It not only helps, but it makes it all possible in the first place. Integration of ideas from materials design and synthesis through characterization and modeling to fully functioning devices is only possible in a framework such as the EFRC, bringing so many of us together to think creatively about important issues. Sharing our facilities and instrumentation is also a big part of it.

Does this also translate over into your teaching?

I appreciate the openness and excitement of the academic world. The fact that each year new students arrive, full of fresh ideas and with open minds, is a great advantage of academia. I take great pride in watching students develop into well-rounded and accomplished scientists in the course of their education and research work.

Any examples when this freedom to explore worked out for you?

One of my graduate students insisted on running a set of experiments that appeared to lead nowhere, or better – to be a routine measurement. But, having the opportunity to explore, this student came up with interesting and unexpected results. It actually started a major research program in my group.

When I interviewed Berend Smit, he said: "In academia the reward for good work is more work.” How do you find your work-life balance?

For me, research is not just a job – it is a big part of my life. There is no line splitting these two. My wife is a researcher, too, and it works out for both of us. Sure, sometimes your brain gets filled up with things and you need to press the RESET button to get a fresh start. If you work 24/7, you will start walking in circles.

What is your getaway activity?

I want do things that are absorbing, that let you forget about the research for a moment and come back with fresh ideas. I love spending time with my wife and dog, a Hungarian bird-hunting breed, very fast, with a lot of endurance and supreme focus. She is perfect company for endurance sports and long hikes. I also enjoy traditional music from around the world, a.k.a. "world music," and classical music. The apparent simplicity of the former and the apparent complexity of the latter meet, in fact, somewhere in the middle in a very appealing fashion. I enjoy reading and just finished a superb book-long essay on the German Revolution in 1918/1919 by Sebastian Haffner. It is a historical study of the missed opportunities and the tragic consequences, an essay full of outrage.

What advice do you have for those just starting their careers?

I encourage those starting out to study and do a lot of different things, rather than stay in one field for an extended period of time. Studying and getting into various things is enriching, gives you a broad perspective, and allows you to communicate with people in other fields much more easily. And, last but not least, it gives you fresh ideas and lets you approach things differently. It gives you the synergy from the inside.

About the author(s):

Jaroslaw Syzdek is a member of the Northeastern Center for Chemical Energy Storage. He is currently conducting his postdoctoral research at the Ernest Orlando Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, developing new laser-based analytical techniques and studying failure modes of lithium-ion batteries.