Solar cell research propels science boffin to Stanford

Eswatini-born scientist dreams of producing energy materials that would last in solar panels for 20 years or longer.

A recent PhD in science Witsie has been admitted as a post-doctoral scholar and employee at the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Light Source (SSRL) at Stanford University in the US.

Sikhumbuzo Masina has been accepted at the SSRL, a facility that produces intense x-rays as a source for researchers to study the world at the atomic and molecular level. Masina will be broadening his knowledge to learn and examine the fundamentals of molecular structures and surfaces in a more detailed and complex manner.

Masina submitted his thesis titled “The Electrolytes for Solid Oxide Fuel Cells” at the beginning of 2023. His passion for science led him to take up the opportunity at the SSLR to broaden his knowledge on solar cells and to understand the fundamentals of synchrotron radiation which is the circular acceleration that occurs during electromagnetic radiation.

This love for science started when he enrolled for a bachelor’s degree in physics and chemistry from 2009 to 2013 at the University of Eswatini. The year 2014 leading to 2016 saw Masina tutoring high school learners in mathematics, physics and chemistry.  This is how he manged to save money to come to South Africa and further his studies.

He then enrolled at Wits in 2017 for an honours and followed that with a master’s, which got converted to a PhD because of the quality of his research. He told Wits Vuvuzela that “No one went past high school at home so I’m grateful to Wits for the skill that I can now use internationally.” He also extended his gratitude to his two supervisors, Dave Billing and Caren Billing, “as they didn’t just produce students, they produced people with skills who will go out there and commit themselves professionally”.

Masina’s goal is to now learn the necessary skills he needs at Stanford with the hopes to one day build an African source of electromagnetic radiation as Africa is the only planet without one. Caren Billing described him as “such a pleasure to supervise, as he is so driven to work, learn and also train the other students after him.

“When the PhD in science students went to the Synchrotron Beamline at Brookhaven National Laboratories in New York, his abilities, enthusiasm and work ethic impressed his employer and the beam line scientist there,” Caren Billing said.

Darren Fynn, a science student that Masina supervised, said he was sad to see him go as he had provided him with invaluable mentorship. “He was extremely patient even when explaining the most complex of topics in science and chemistry and would give his undivided attention when helping others.” Masina said that his journey at Stanford would include doing more research on energy materials for potential use in solar cells as the aim is to improve the highly efficient light absorbers in order for them to last in solar panels for 20 years and longer.

FEATURED IMAGE: Sikhumbuzo Masina in his office at Wits University Gate House. Photo: Lesedi Maako