Profile: Brenda Rowan
Refuting sterile lab coat images of scientists, physicist Brenda Rowan is such an avid snowboarder that she’s had a wheeled contraption – a hybrid skateboard/snowboard – made for her so she can still get the thrill of slaloming when the weather’s warm and hills are grassy. Luckily she’s equally at home in the lab as the slopes.
Perhaps from spending so much time around snowflakes – small, crystalline and cold – but in her latest project quantum dots – microscopic, crystalline and good at conducting electricity – piqued Rowan’s interest.
Harnessing the power of these quantum dots, particles so small that millions fit on the tip of a finger, she has a plan to build a better solar panel.
Generally manufactured, these particles - only 10 to 50 times the size of an atom - have the special ability of absorbing light and then emitting it later, the same way a glow-in-the-dark watch takes in energy during the day and then shines after dark.
Rowan’s updated solar panel consists of a box filled with quantum dot solution, an orangey plastic resin. This box will have a mirror on one side, clear glass on 2 sides and a photovoltaic chip on another.
Light enters the box through the clear sides and bounces off the mirror towards an army of light-hungry quantum dots waiting to soak up the sun’s energy from every angle. Unlike existing solar panels, Rowan’s wouldn’t need to be placed in direct sunlight where they can most easily track the sun throughout the day.
Her three dimensional box will take in and use existing light more effectively, which means they can be more flexibly positioned than conventional solar panels. Thus they are more easily incorporated into building and façade design, possibly lowering a common barrier to the adoption of solar technology.
How did Rowan become involved with something as easily overlooked as nanoscopic particles? Following a life-long interest in science, Rowan enrolled at the National University of Ireland, Galway (NUIG) studying Earth Sciences for broad scientific foundation it would afford her across a range of disciplines.
After graduating, Rowan and her boyfriend moved to the Alps where they spent every day snowboarding - for two years. Maybe it was from an unfortunate bump on the head after a fall or simply spending each day in Alpine splendour, but Rowen decided she wanted to work towards sustainable energy.
That’s when she found her current project at Dublin Institute of Technology. When she started Rowan, like most of us, had never heard of quantum dots, but came to realise the practical applications of nanotechnology.
With the duelling obsessions of science and snowboarding one has to wonder just how many pairs of goggles she owns.