With solar cells, it’s like solving a puzzle. It is a complex system, you have lots of different components and there is always something new that can be changed or manipulated, so you have a lot to work with. You never get bored as you don’t have to just focus on one specific direction of chemistry! You can focus on the synthesis side of things, or you can move onto device characterisation and engineering, so you always have the opportunity to work with lots of different people. My team is therefore very diverse, and I spend a lot of time trying to find a common language between engineers, chemists and computer scientists, which can actually be incredibly interesting!
What has been the most challenging moment of your career so far?
I am currently facing probably the most challenging time of my career right now. I already had an independent group in Sweden, but I recently moved to the UK and I found this to be quite challenging, especially because of the current pandemic. I have found the research environment to be very different. In the UK, there is an increased level of resources available and universities involved, and you are able to work with people with a diverse range of experiences, so I’m looking forward to finding my way through this at the moment. I’m excited about the opportunities that this will present.
What is your biggest motivation?
Having new ideas is not difficult, realising them is. I usually have the approach of try first, and ask questions later, which most scientists don’t have! If I see something interesting from a completely different area of research, I will make these molecules or systems first, and then I will ask myself the question, "Why does/doesn’t it work?" My career is therefore decorated with small, happy accidents that developed into great research. I try to implement this strategy of discovery in my work. Everyone involved in my research dedicates around 20% of their time to exploring things that don’t obviously make sense or seem like the obvious direction to work in, but can lead to something very interesting.
Anyone who carries out research will fail 99% of the time, but that just makes the 1% even more important and exciting.
You had your first Chemical Science publication in 2020, a paper which spans a few areas of chemistry. This was chosen as our Chemical Science Pick of the Week. How was your experience with the journal?
I’m super happy with my experience. We knew that it would be difficult to publish this paper because it covers so many different areas of research, not just in chemistry but also around computer science. I did talk to a lot of editors beforehand at various conferences, who were all excited by the sound of the research and happy to hear the story that we wanted to tell. But once we submitted, it was difficult for them to find the right reviewers. We basically have two parts to this paper, one is computer science, and one is chemistry and solar cells. It was difficult to find people who could support the publication of both areas of research due to a lack of overlap in expertise. I then met some representatives from the Royal Society of Chemistry, and spoke with some of my colleagues, and everyone told me that Chemical Science would be able to handle it. I immediately wrote to the journal where the paper was stuck in peer review, and told them that I wanted to retract the submission. This turned out to be a very good idea.
The way this publication was handled and the way that the article was promoted was incredible. We received a lot of attention from this. The video abstract that Chemical Science made to accompany it was fantastic. My students are certainly tired of me watching it on repeat! I expected the publication of this research to be quite difficult, but I got more out of it than I thought I would and it is already being well cited within the short period of time since publication.
You always get the feeling as a young researcher who has just started a new group that the editors may not handle your paper very well, so I was very happy with Chemical Science.
What impact do you hope that your Chemical Science paper will be able to have on your research field?
In our 2020 Chemical Science paper, we showed how we can harness enough energy from just indoor illumination. This is not my first paper in this direction, but it is the first to show that it is really possible to go from powering small devices to really being able to compute on a larger scale and power artificial intelligence, all from just the power of a lamp in your office.
I think this makes a big difference right now in my field. There are lots of photovoltaic devices in the area, including those made from perovskites, silicon etc., but nothing can compete with our device. I have therefore now decided that I’d like to go and compete with batteries! A great article was published in Science last year, which discussed how we have billions and trillions of Internet of Things (IoT) devices that could support our everyday life, but they all need to have an external power source such as a battery. These solutions are therefore unsustainable, so this is what our work aims to address.
You know the movie terminator? Well, this is what we do. Our systems are completely autonomous – they have their own energy source, with artificial intelligence built on top. So yes, our technology will rule the world eventually!
How do you see your field progressing in the next 10 years?
Dye-sensitised solar cells came out in the 90s, with research in this area over the past 30 years focusing on finding a new sensitiser. 10,000’s of different dyes have been explored. We hoped this would solve the efficiency problem, but it didn’t. I think the best thing now is to focus on charge transport materials, which is what we’re doing. I can count on my hands how many options there are for this currently, and this is where the most recent and biggest breakthroughs have been in this area.
Where you embed these dye cells is also important – you can consider building integration, or the use of completely transparent solar cells. There are huge opportunities for this area of research to move in this direction. There is no need to compete with other technologies. If you embed energy harvesting cells everywhere possible, this could really revolutionise the field.
10th anniversary collection
To celebrate the 10th anniversary of Chemical Science we are publishing a number of special birthday issues, to recognise and thank members of our community who have been supporting the journal and publishing in Chemical Science since we launched ten years ago.
Explore our collection now.