Chapel Hill News

Dream carries researcher from Chapel Hill to space station

Jud Ready, who grew up in Chapel Hill, is principal research engineer with the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He pioneered a solar cell of nanotube “towers” coated with four earth-abundant materials: copper, zinc, tin and sulfur. The nanotube arrays were grown using the plasma-enhanced CVD tool behind him.
Jud Ready, who grew up in Chapel Hill, is principal research engineer with the Georgia Tech Research Institute. He pioneered a solar cell of nanotube “towers” coated with four earth-abundant materials: copper, zinc, tin and sulfur. The nanotube arrays were grown using the plasma-enhanced CVD tool behind him. Contributed

Jud Ready, a Chapel Hill High School alumnus, realized a childhood dream to reach for the stars when his work was launched from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station this month.

The SpaceX mission rocketed from Florida’s eastern coast early July 18, delivering the Dragon 9 spacecraft and 5,000 pounds of supplies and research, including 18 of his 3-D nanotube solar cells, to the International Space Station.

“It was very special to be able to impact science and impact space exploration, as well, one of the things I’ve enjoyed my whole life,” Ready, 45, said.

He watched with friends and family, including his mother, wife Jamie and three children, from a VIP viewing area a couple of miles away.

“It was dark, and all of sudden, here it comes, rising right up over the trees. It just kept going higher and higher,” said Ready’s mother Jean Lusted, who still lives in Chapel Hill.

The Falcon 9 rocket powering the launch fell away from Dragon about 10 minutes later and landed – an experiment designed to show the rocket could be used for multiple missions. NASA could use the Falcon and Dragon to resupply the space station through 2024.

“We thought the thing had blown up, because it made this tremendous sound,” Lusted said. “Later we found out that was the re-entry breaking the sound barrier.”

Space station crew members captured Dragon in low-earth orbit Wednesday morning using a 57-foot robotic arm. They also got a handheld DNA sequencer and the first of two standardized docking adapters that could be used to connect commercial flights.

SpaceX is a leading private company in the quest to offer commercial space flight.

The solar cells that Ready pioneered in 2005 will be mounted onto a NanoRacks module for six months of testing. The research to evaluate how they withstand the extreme conditions and temperatures of space is sponsored by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space. NanoRacks is lending its module as part of a Space Act Agreement with NASA’s U.S. National Labs.

“If it can survive in space, which is the harshest of environments from the standpoint of wide temperature swings, radiation and numerous other factors, then we can be confident it will work well down on Earth,” Ready said.

The adjunct professor and deputy director of innovation initiatives for Georgia Tech’s Institute for Materials is the principal investigator on a four-person research team looking at how to make solar power cheaper and more efficient.

His engineering students actually built the cells – each about the size of a quarter – he said. They coated miniature carbon nanotube towers with a compound of copper, zinc, tin and sulfide (CZTS), materials that are more abundant and cheaper than those used now and are non-toxic.

The nanotube towers can be exposed to the sun for a longer period of time than existing flat cells, which trap energy when the sun’s directly overhead and are only 20 percent to 40 percent efficient, Ready said.

“The CZTS approach produces an efficient photo-absorber using earth-abundant materials that cost around a thousand times less than rare-earth elements like indium, gallium and selenium,” he said.

The orbital tests will compare the technology to older 3-D cells using conventional cadmium telluride, traditional flat solar cells and flat cells using the CZTS coating.

The results will be important especially for increasing power to spacecraft, which have a limited amount of surface area for mounting solar arrays.

CZTS also is a direct band gap material, making it more resistant to ionizing radiation in space and limiting the damage to cell function, he said. Plus, incoming solar photons can emit electrical current-producing electrons directly, conserving energy and momentum.

It’s like an express vs. a local train, Ready said; both start and stop at the same stations, but a local train uses more energy to make stops in between.

The technology was licensed for commercial production in 2011 to California-based Bloo Solar. While the panels are still in pre-production, Ready hopes they will advance the world’s use of solar power over the next several years.

“As society goes along ... converting over to an electric environment powered by the sun that’s just absolutely raining energy down on us constantly is a very intelligent way for our species to go,” he said. “I expect it will come, and I’m happy to make a little dent in that problem.”

Lusted, as she stood beside her son for the launch, said she thought back 40 years to when she asked a young Ephesus Elementary School student what he wanted to be when he grew up. An astronaut, he told her.

She proudly watched him reach for that dream last week, she said.

“That’s pretty incredible, to actually make a dream happen. That it can be something that you can pursue,” Lusted said. “I guess parents just have to encourage their children to follow their dreams and follow their interests. They can do it if they stay with it.”

Tammy Grubb: 919-829-8926, @TammyGrubb

Learn more

Watch the launch of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon 9 spacecraft at spacex.com/webcast.

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