Curiosity Drives Grade School Dropout to Solar Materials Discovery

2/19/24 Pratt School of Engineering

Akash Singh earned a bachelor's degree in mechanical engineering from the Indian Institute of Information Technology, Design and Manufacturing, Jabalpur. His current focus is on developing design rules to transform crystalline metal-halide perovskite semiconductors.

Graduate student Akash Singh working in a lab
Curiosity Drives Grade School Dropout to Solar Materials Discovery

Graduate students at Duke come from a variety of backgrounds, research interests and walks of life, with many carving paths all their own through unbridled curiosity. Akash Singh, a fifth-year PhD candidate studying materials science and engineering, began his journey growing up in India, looking to the skies for answers to the questions that ultimately brought him to the research he pursues now. 

Born and raised in northern India with scarce electricity, Singh’s fascination with the potential of solar energy began at just the age of four. In the absence of conventional power sources, a rooftop blackboard became a symbol of wonder, harnessing solar energy to light their home during the evening. 

Singh’s inquisitiveness led to a revelation by his father about the properties and features of silicon, solar energy conversion and the cycle of renewable energy generation – a pivotal moment igniting his passion for materials science.

Two researchers in front of poster presentations on glassy perovskites at MRS Fall Meeting and Exhibit, Boston, 2022
David Mitzi, Duke’s Simon Family Distinguished Professor, and Akash Singh give a poster presentation on glassy perovskites at the 2022 MRS Fall Meeting and Exhibit.

In a bold move, Singh made a decision in grade six, which is around the second year of middle school for students in India, to drop out of school, driven by the desire to dive into hands-on exploration rather than confining himself to the school’s norms. This unconventional choice marked the beginning of his journey toward a career in materials science.

It wasn’t common in India for students to drop out, much less at the time that Singh decided to, but he spent the next handful of years pouring over whatever science and mathematics textbooks he could get his hands on. Much of his time was also spent scavenging for disparate components in a junkyard his family left unwanted items in.

He also worked hard preparing for national level competitive examinations and funding opportunities such as the National Talent Search Examination, the Kishore Vaigyanik Protsahan Yojana Exam, Young Scientist Enrichment Programs, and obtaining government scholarship funds to help secure a spot in college.

“Coming to the U.S. was a dream,” he said. “I used to imagine different superpowers and then try to develop science that utilized similar technology.” 

Entering undergrad in 2014, Singh encountered a fascinating material system called perovskites, which had recently been recognized for its applications in solar cells and is currently one of the most researched classes of semiconductors.

Be open to things, and don’t rush. Above all, definitely dig deep to find a greater meaning in your research.

Akash Singh Duke MEMS PhD candidate studying materials science and engineering with David Mitzi

Perovskites are a class of materials that—with the right combination of elements—are grown into a crystalline structure that makes them particularly well-suited for energy applications. Their ability to absorb light and transfer its energy efficiently makes them a common target for researchers developing new types of solar cells, for example. They’re also soft, sort of like how solid gold can be easily dented, which gives them the ability to tolerate defects and avoid cracking when made into a thin film.

Motivated by a childhood dream, Singh joined the Center for Nanoscience and Engineering at Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore to work on the development of cost-effective perovskite solar cells, laying the foundation for his future endeavors. Under the guidance of Sushobhan Avasthi’s research group, he worked in the lab all the way through his undergraduate thesis in 2017. 

During his undergraduate final year, Singh’s dedication to research culminated in a submission to the Materials Research Society spring meeting in Phoenix, Ariz. This led to a serendipitous encounter with Duke’s David Mitzi, the Simon Family Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, while waiting on a street outside the convention for the traffic light to turn green. Inspired by the discussion that followed, Singh set his sights on Duke, where the journey took an unexpected turn with the accidental discovery of a glassy state in perovskites. 

This discovery, a rarity in the last 200 years of perovskite research, paved the way for a new field of study: glassy perovskite semiconductors that hold the potential to broaden the application space of perovskites into memory, computing, photonic, sensing and energy storage devices.

Graduate student Akash Singh working in a Duke laboratory
Singh’s commitment to sustainable materials extends to labs at Duke

Under Mitzi’s supervision, Singh successfully filed for a patent, securing intellectual property rights for this surprising finding. His Duke journey, which included surviving the challenges posed by COVID-19, became a testament to his resilience and passion for materials.

Beyond his achievements in the lab, Singh’s path has also branched out to science communications and climate advocacy. Recognizing the importance of effective science communication within the university setting, he founded the Materials Research Society at Duke amid the pandemic. This initiative facilitated research dialogue among students and faculty while contributing to the overall professional development of the society members. 

With the support of Duke’s Materials Initiative, MRS@Duke has evolved into a hub for materials science communication at Duke and the Research Triangle region at-large. Singh envisions a future for himself that blends research and communication, inspiring the next generation to pursue careers in materials science and STEM fields.

From his early sparks of curiosity in India to pioneering research in perovskites in the United States, Singh’s story embodies the spirit of resilience, determination and passion for advancing science.

“Don’t succumb to the pressure of publication,” Singh said as advice to incoming engineers. “Be open to things, and don’t rush—above all, definitely dig deep to find a greater meaning in your research.”

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