I joined Bucknell because the University has an environment that encourages students to solve important, current world problems through science.

Amal Kabalan

In 2011, Guinea's political strife significantly decreased access to electrical power, and schoolchildren started studying under street lights since their homes were dark at night. Professor Amal Kabalan, electrical & computer engineering, was concerned for their safety and touched by their dedication to education. As a participant in the World Bank Athgo Global Forum, she developed a concept to equip student backpacks with small solar panels that would harness the sun's energy as students walked to and from school. The panels would be used to power lamps for later study indoors.

The idea won the forum's Presidential Grant for best socio-economic business plan that transcends traditional entrepreneurship – a $3,000 prize that helped Kabalan found Solar Brite Solutions with her teammates. "We have a prototype ready and are working toward bringing the backpack to students in developing countries," says Kabalan, the C. Graydon and Mary E. Rogers Faculty Fellow for 2014-17. Solar Brite Backpacks initially cost $130 to manufacture, but the group has been able to reduce the cost to $85 and hopes nonprofit agencies will pay for packs as education expenses.

Kabalan's research integrates semiconducting nanomaterials into electronic devices such as solar cells and biosensors to improve the efficiency and response of those devices. "I'm studying the properties of semiconducting materials to understand how we can increase the absorption of sunlight in solar cells," she says.

Because nanowires are smaller than the tip of human hair – less than 50 micrometers – Kabalan uses electrochemistry to fabricate the wires in a chemical solution and studies the properties of the structures using an electron microscope. "We can change the properties of materials by changing their dimensions. Through chemistry and through careful design of the properties of the constituent material, we can make solar cells that produce electric power," she says.

Kabalan is highly collaborative in her work. "Nanotechnology as a science merges many areas. What you learn in one discipline can be applied to electrical engineering, and I'm hoping to create many collaborations and interdisciplinary projects where students from different academic interests can contribute," she says. "I want my students to think critically and problem-solve through scientific reasoning. I joined Bucknell because the University has an environment that encourages students to solve important, current world problems through science."

Posted Sept. 29, 2014 

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