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May 2013

Science, Scholarship and Success: An Interview with Peter Green

Learn how a center director is paving the way to a greener future

Brian Doyle

Peter Green, Center for Solar and Thermal Energy Conversion Director, believes in challenging himself and those he mentors.

A conversation with Peter Green will undoubtedly leave you inspired about the future of energy research. As director of the Department of Energy-funded Center for Solar and Thermal Energy Conversion, CSTEC, at the University of Michigan, Green relies on his extensive science background to help develop innovative solutions to solar and thermal energy conversion technologies. This translates into more efficient solar panels and devices that can convert temperature changes into electricity by providing insight into the underlying mechanisms of each technology. By challenging himself with multiple responsibilities in his professional life, Green exemplifies the connection between the mental and physical nature that is demanded in the approach to the grand energy challenges we face today.

Initially intending to become an economics major at Hunter College, Green decided to leverage his mathematics background and switch into the field of physics soon after his freshman year. He was quickly immersed in the world of chemical physics through undergraduate research where he used spectroscopic techniques to examine bonding in charge transfer complexes. His fascination with polymer physics spurred him to pursue a masters and Ph.D. in materials science and engineering at Cornell University. Under the guidance of Ed Kramer, Green learned firsthand how a mentor can inspire graduate students. " The creativity and enthusiasm that Prof. Kramer had for research influenced me to pursue a career in academia where I would inspire others,"  says Green.

Green accepted a postdoctoral position at Sandia National Laboratories, with the intention of finding an academic position a year or two later. However, he remained at Sandia for more than a decade leading and managing technical research in physical properties of polymers and electronic ceramics. It ended up taking 11 years, but Green finally returned to academia to pursue his research interests and become more involved in mentoring students.

"I wanted to make a contribution toward educating students through teaching in the classroom and by introducing undergraduate and graduate students to the world of research," says Green. "The most exciting part of my job is seeing these students make connections between the ideas and theories they read about and their experimental results."  Those connections happen every day at the Center.

As director, Green and his colleagues are at the forefront of science and engineering research. His personal research in the center is in the area of organic and hybrid thin films with applications ranging from energy conversion to organic electronics and sensors. Green and collaborators have developed environmentally benign low temperature processing strategies to control the morphology of organic solar cells to achieve efficient solar cell performance. Moreover, they have designed—using computational strategies—and synthesized conjugated polymers for high-efficiency solar cells. Work like this demonstrates how materials research has changed in recent years.

Green has seen this change firsthand. "Today, due largely to the impact of chemistry on the field of materials science and engineering, different classes of materials can be designed and synthesized to exhibit diverse properties. For example, current and future generations of inorganic oxide materials and polymeric materials are capable of exhibiting a wide range of electronic, optical and structural properties. Polymeric materials are capable of thermoelectric behavior, an application that was not previously envisioned by most experts. Today, through creative strategies to manipulate the composition and structure of materials at the nanoscale, the functional characteristics of materials may be tailored for applications never previously envisioned." 

By combining the power of computation and experiment-based approaches, new properties can be realized in materials that in previous decades would be considered counterintuitive.

With so many bright minds at work, CSTEC has developed an understanding of new materials phenomena and processes and have discovered innovative materials solutions; the Center has become a hub for communication throughout the community.

For Green, the best part of being in the academic world is the diverse experiences that come with centers such as CSTEC. " The great part of academia is that you are never bored. You get to seek out the most interesting problems and meet with creative minds across the world to share ideas develop solutions that are of value to society," says Green.

As Chair of the Materials Science and Engineering department at the University of Michigan, Green has the opportunity to influence many students every day. However, being department chair comes with its own plateful of responsibilities ranging from administrative tasks and building partnerships to mentoring to procuring resources. "One has to be very effective at multitasking. Perhaps the hardest part of multitasking is maintaining focus on one task without distractions, then quickly moving to an entirely different task and maintaining the same level of focus. You need to understand your strengths and weaknesses and understand conditions under which you are most efficient," says Green.

So, what is his secret to his success? Staying in very good physical shape so he can control stress and work long hours. With a background in rowing and soccer, Green continues to run in his rare free time early in the morning. He credits running for his energy to tackle the long demands each day presents, " I believe that the being good physical shape one will remain sharp mentally. When I am in great physical shape, I remain mentally focused for long hours without becoming mentally fatigued." 

Without a doubt, the future is bright for Green and the collaborators at the Center. Through the efforts of mentors like Green, this Center prepares scientists to run towards the most pressing energy challenges and will undeniably contribute to a greener future.

About the author(s):

  • Brian Doyle is a second-year Ph.D. student working in the HeteroFoaM Center and in the Center for Fuel Cell and Battery Technologies at the Georgia Institute of Technology. He is working to characterize the structure-property relationships in doping of ceramic electrolytes for solid oxide fuel cells with the goal of developing the underlying principles for future rational design. Outside of the lab, he stays active by training and competing in triathlons as a member of the Georgia Tech triathlon team.

Disclaimer: The opinions in this newsletter are those of the individual authors and do not represent the views or position of the Department of Energy.