Thursday, September 18, 2008

SEVENTH GRADER SHINES WITH SOLAR CELL RESEARCH: William Yuan won a $25,000 scholarship for his graduate level work

By Christina Lent | The Beaverton Valley (ORE)  Times

 (news photo)

Jaime Valdez / The Beaverton Valley Times  | William Yuan, 12, will be recognized Sept. 24 for his invention of a highly-efficient, three-dimensional nanotube solar cell for visible and ultraviolet light.

Sep 11, 2008 [Updated Sep 16, 2008] -- William Yuan’s bright idea to create a new, more efficient solar cell earned him top honors as Oregon’s only 2008 Davidson Fellow.

As part of the honor, the 12-year-old Bethany boy will be flown to Washington, D.C., for a reception Sept. 24 at the Library of Congress where he will receive his award and a $25,000 scholarship from the Davidson Institute for Talent Development.

“William’s work was evaluated by university professors and environmental scientists,” said Tacie Moessner, Davidson Fellows program manager in a call from Reno, Nev. “They look for the project’s potential to benefit society and make sure it is socially relevant. Generally, the projects need to be at the graduate level.”

Yuan worked on his project for the past two years with the encouragement of his science teacher Susan Duncan; support of his parents Gang Yuan and Zhiming Mei; and counsel of professional mentors Professor Chunfei Li of Portland State University’s Center for Nanofabrication and Electron Microscopy, Fred Li of Applied Materials Inc. and Professor Shaofan Li of the Department of Civil Engineering at the University of California – Berkeley.

“He is our youngest fellow in science that we’ve ever had,” Moessner said. “He is really spectacular.

“His project will really make a difference in advancing the technology of solar cells. You would never know he’s 12 looking at the quality of his work.”

Young talent

William Yuan is a seventh-grader in Meadow Park Middle School’s Summa options program.

He is an active member of the school’s Math Engineering Science Achievement (MESA) Club, First Lego League team and participant in the Science Bowl and MathCounts programs. He is also a two-time, second-place chess champion for the state.

Recognizing his interest in science, math and engineering, Yuan’s science teacher encouraged him to tackle a challenging engineering project for the Northwest Science Expo after introducing him to nanotechnology and renewable energy research.

“We learned about some great energy and environmental issues,” Yuan said. “To try to help, I researched the application of nanotechnology and renewable energy.

“I felt they would best complement my background knowledge and experience. After extensive research and community outreach, I wanted to work on a project to find a solution for some of the problems of the world.”

Yuan decided to focus his project on finding the most efficient way to harness the sun’s energy.

“I felt solar energy had large potential but it was underused,” he explained. “Fossil fuels like oil, coal and natural gas are only finite and are slated to run out by 2050.

“We need to make solar energy more cost effective and efficient.”

With that thought in mind, Yuan got to work.

“Current solar cells are flat and can only absorb visible light,” he said. “I came up with an innovative solar cell that absorbs both visible and UV light. My project focused on finding the optimum solar cell to further increase the light absorption and efficiency and design a nanotube for light-electricity conversion efficiency.”

Yuan invested countless hours in his research, seeking out new resources in the field to find a workable real-world solution.

“He has worked very hard in the past couple years,” his father Gang Yuan said. “We’re grateful that he had great mentors and teachers to guide him.

“When he started on his research, he had great curiosity and wanted to dig into it more. As his parents, we looked for experiences to help him.”

Watching his dedication impressed William’s parents.

“This generation’s sense of urgency is much stronger than my generation’s,” his father said. “They are thinking about the future and want to know how environmental issues will impact their generation.”

Promising future

Tapping into that talent and giving gifted youth the opportunity to excel is what the Davidson Institute is all about.

The national nonprofit organization recognized 20 students this year for their achievements.

Yuan admitted he submitted his project for review as a learning experience.

“This was a test run — I wasn’t expected anything,” he said. “I thought it would help when I entered another program when I was older.”

His work on developing his three-dimensional solar cell is far from complete.

“My next step is to talk to manufacturers to see if they will build a working prototype,” Yuan said. “If the design works in a real test stage, I want to find a company to manufacture and market it.”

The Davidson Institute scholarship will help Yuan further his research and his career in science and technology.

He plans to use the money to “attend one of the best universities in the country” and study nanotechnology, biotechnology or medicine.

“I’d like to work in technology at Google, Applied Materials or some other company that starts up between now and then,” Yuan said. “I’ve always liked math and science and engineering.

“If used properly, they can help solve the problems of the world. They can also be used to explore the world around us.”

Moessner has no doubt that Yuan will achieve great things in his future and looks forward to meeting him later this month.

“All of the fellows are really focused and driven but still humble,” she said. “They are also creative and brilliant.”

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