Researching Energy at Georgetown and CERN

February 7, 2013—As a physics major, George Burton (C’13) regularly works in a research laboratory. He was able to continue his research experience while studying abroad in Geneva, Switzerland.

Last year, Burton spent eight months studying and working in Geneva, funded in part by the Georgetown University Research Opportunities Program (GUROP). While abroad, Burton took physics courses in French at the University of Geneva and spent the rest of his time conducting research at CERN, also known as the European Organization for Nuclear Research.

Burton is one of three current Georgetown physics majors to work at CERN. “[It’s] known for the Large Hadron Collider, [its particle accelerator]. Before I went to CERN, I thought that was all that they do, but they have tons of other smaller experiments,” he explained.

Burton chose to work in the Neutron Time-of-Flight Facility with a group of CERN scientists and Ph.D. students. The experience allowed Burton to work in a different area of research, particle physics.

“We were measuring radioactive isotopes that are in nuclear fission reactors. We were looking at the different reactions when neutrons interact with Uranium 235 and Uranium 238,” he said. “It has application for new reactors [and] the transmutation of waste.”

Burton became interested in energy while on an alternative spring break trip his first-year at Georgetown. He spent a week in Kentucky, where he learned about mountain-top removal. Rather than mining through layers of rock and coal, some mining companies “blast off the top or side” of a mountain as an easier and cheaper way to extract coal. The trip introduced Burton to energy issues that could be improved by research focused in applied physics and practical applications.

Burton conducts researches in Associate Professor Edward Van Keuren’s laboratory. “I’m interested in working on solar technology. I’m working on making nanoparticles, using a reprecipitation technique, that have applications to organic photovoltaic devices and organic electronics,” he said.

Photovoltaic devices, or solar cells, are typically made of nonorganic materials. “Instead of making them out of metal, we’re trying to make them out of organic materials. It reduces the [financial] cost a lot but at the cost of efficiency,” he continued. Burton is working on creating more efficient organic nanoparticles for solar cells.

He starts by creating a crystal from two compounds. “There’s an electron donor and an electron acceptor. When they’re together, they can transport a charge faster,” he said. “We know that two compounds can form a crystal, so I’m testing the electrical properties of the crystal, the conductivity and the photoconductivity.” Burton is also investigating what different combinations of compounds may work for his experiment.

“The ultimate goal [would be] to make a solar cell with the nanoparticles to see if they actually work,” he said.

According to Burton, the general public still sees solar cells as too expensive in the long-term. “People aren’t thinking, ‘I’ll buy solar cells to put on my roof.’ People aren’t thinking of other options,” he said. As he works to improve organic photovoltaic devices, he hopes that a more efficient and cheaper option would help people consider alternative energy sources.

Burton is one of many Georgetown students who have enjoyed independence in the research lab. “I’m pretty much on my own on my project. I have a lot of freedom and self-motivation to do the work,” he said. Professor Van Keuren, who is also chair of the physics department, provides much-needed mentorship and advice, but he allows Burton to learn to become a scientist on his own. “He tells me the general trajectory of what I need to be doing, and I figure out how to get there.”

With research experience at Georgetown and CERN, Burton is considering a future in physics research after Georgetown.

“I like more hands-on [work]. I’m really enjoying the work that I’m doing now.”

—Elizabeth Wilson