By: Becca Burke
Inspiration could be called a driving force for doctoral student Mike Henry — creative inspiration, inspiration to expand his own knowledge base and those he comes into contact with, as well as the inspiration to think about how to change the world for future generations.
“I’ve been very fortunate to have a string of teachers and professors from elementary school through college who have encouraged me to always pursue what I was interested in and go into math and science and do research,” Henry said.
Henry is channeling that inspiration and looking toward the future while pursuing his doctorate at Boise State in materials science and engineering.
“When I was an undergraduate, I really enjoyed doing fundamental research, so I was looking for a way to continue pursuing that by doing research and expanding humanity’s knowledge of the world. A way to continue that goal was to pursue my Ph.D.,” he said.
Henry received his undergraduate degrees in math and physics from Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, before coming to Boise State. Originally from Gilbert, Arizona, Henry has come to find the weather, atmosphere and people in Boise the best of all worlds. The beautiful Boise weather suits Henry, an avid biker who enjoys riding his bike on the Greenbelt and to work every day.
“Before moving to Boise the only thing I knew about it was the blue field,” Henry said. “I really like Boise. Going from Arizona where the summer temperatures can reach 120 degrees, to Iowa with terrible Midwestern winters with months of subzero weather and snow, to here where the winters are mild is fantastic!”
When not studying or in the classroom, Henry enjoys spending time with his wife, whom he met during his undergrad years at Simpson College. She also is a Boise State student, pursuing her master’s in social work. “I think she’s smarter than me,” Henry joked.
Although Henry is in the early stages of his Ph.D. program, he’s developed quite a reputation. His advisor and lab director, assistant professor Eric Jankowski, describes Henry’s role in the lab as integral to its success.
“Mike is the first student to join my lab, where his activity as a researcher learning to perform molecular simulations, setting up the lab, and helping our newest members find their footing have gone a long way toward getting our research going,” Jankowski said. “His work simulating organic molecules used in solar panels has already been presented at two conferences and is foundational to his graduate fellowship from the Idaho Space Grant Consortium. We’re looking forward to his ongoing successes that grows from his continued leadership and diligent work.”
Henry credits Jankowski and the team of people he works with in the Computational Materials Engineering Laboratory for his successes. “We all work together on different facets of the project. It’s a computational lab so we don’t complete any wet work, but we run simulations on the computer. An additional benefit of computational research is I can wear shorts and flip flops to lab,” Henry said.
Henry’s research is focused on developing and enhancing the self-assembly of polymers in organic photovoltaics. Traditionally, solar cells are made of glass, a process that is expensive to manufacture. Also, the solar cells are extremely heavy, making their application difficult in many circumstances. Henry is researching working compounds to make solar cells out of plastic, while increasing their efficiency.
“To make them out of plastic we use different organic compounds. My research is in how we can tune the processing of those compounds to make more efficient solar cells. The advantage of making solar cells out of plastic is that they’re lightweight, flexible and inexpensive to produce. You can use the same kind of roll-to-roll manufacturing process they use in a printing press,” Henry explained.
Henry hopes that increasing the efficiency of plastic polymer solar cells will bring about an alternative energy revolution, something that would be particularly beneficial in developing countries. By making the solar cells more economically viable for mass production, and streamlining the production process, countries could develop solar cells as they need them, inexpensively, without requiring a high-tech fabrication plant.
Henry explained, “By having the option of mass production of solar cells, and because they’re lightweight, they can be installed in applications that you typically can’t use solar cells on. You can’t put solar cells on the roof of an older building, for example, because the building doesn’t have the structural integrity to support the weight. Organic solar cells can also be made to be transparent, so you could, foreseeably, make windows out of them and still see out of them while producing power. With the right solution process you could possibly paint them on, so you could paint the exterior of your building and generate electricity with it.”
Henry hopes his research will help create options for future researchers.
“I would like to see people using computational research tools like simulation to robustly manufacture or design new materials for commercial use. Currently, there isn’t a reliable way for engineers to always acquire what they need,” he said. “Say, for example, an engineer wants a material that’s really strong, lightweight, with these properties — I would like to see a way for someone to come up with that. For me, some of the tools I’m developing along the way with this solar project are better computational tools that allow for rapid material development.”
Ideally, this research and the advancements he’s working on will help find a solution for future problems on a global level.
“Climate change is probably the largest existential threat as a species we’ve ever had to face and that’s a huge problem, but not something I’m going to fix overnight,” he said.
He noted that a tiny portion of that problem is creating clean energy; a smaller portion of that problem is solar, and an even smaller portion of it is trying to make it with plastics.
“An even tinier portion is that I’m researching one particular compound that is potentially useful. It’s a very small problem carved out of a much larger problem that I can actually, as a single person, meaningfully contribute to.”