Laser Guided Research

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In her lab in the basement of Klamath Hall, Assistant Professor Cathy Wong uses a lot of the same tools you’d find in your garage. But when she reaches for a screwdriver, it’s to adjust a $300,000 laser. Her work bench? A three-ton optical table that floats on air so it can dampen the slightest vibration. 

Wong is pioneering a new way to study the properties of semiconductor materials as they undergo chemical changes. The results, she hopes, will lead to better solar cells and help improve many of the devices we use every day.

Wong started at the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry last August. The UO’s strengths in collaborative research, its faculty, and Oregon’s natural beauty helped convince her to come here. Also, there was the research package funded in part by the Division of Equity and Inclusion (DEI). 

“A diversity of people leads to diverse ideas and new ways of looking at problems,” says Wong. “That’s why DEI’s work is so important. The startup package they helped fund was a big part of my decision to join the UO faculty. These resources helped me hit the ground running with my research, and in a few years I hope to leverage the results to get my own funding.”

To study the properties of semiconductors, Wong uses solution processing to create tiny swatches of the thin films that form solar cells. By observing these samples as they form, she hopes to make new discoveries about their properties. 

“We start by dissolving molecules—the building blocks of the solar cell—in solvent. Then we deposit them on a surface. It works like an inkjet printer. As the solvent evaporates, those molecules interact with each other and their properties change. 

“We can’t force these tiny building blocks together. They combine on their own through self-assembly. But we can observe how their properties change during this transformation.” 

To do this, Wong aims a powerful femtosecond laser (a femtosecond is one millionth of one billionth of a second) at the samples. She uses these extremely short pulses of energy to study the sample while it metamorphosizes. 

“Manufacturing the thin films in solar cells is kind of like baking a cake,” says Wong. “You can taste the batter, and you can taste the cake when it’s done. But you can’t taste it in between—until now. We’re measuring the properties of these materials as they change.”
The impact of her discoveries could go well beyond solar cell manufacturing, says Wong.

“That’s the most obvious example. But we could also improve the functionality and efficiency of LEDs, transistors, and other materials. You don’t always notice them, but these materials are part of your daily life—organic LED TVs, your smartphone screen—they’re all over the place.”

In addition to her research, Wong has hit the ground running with the campus community. She’s the faculty sponsor for a new student group, A Community for Minorities in STEM (CMiS). 

“The students wanted to form a group where they can support each other and feel like they belong to something,” says Wong. “It’s my way of paying it forward and helping to create a better environment for students from underrepresented groups.”

—Ed Dorsch, BA ’94 MA ’98


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