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Passionate about finding new solutions to power the world, Dr. Judy Jenkins, associate professor of chemistry at EKU, applies her chemistry and solar energy expertise to a collaborative statewide research project, the Kentucky Advanced Partnership for Enhanced Robotics and Structures (or KAMPERS).

Funded by the Kentucky National Science Foundation’s (NSF) Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), the Kentucky Cabinet for Economic Development and institutional matching funds provided by participating schools, the KAMPERS project supports the fundamental science needed to advance next-generation manufacturing technologies, flexible electronics and robotics. The $24 million, five-year project relies on the expertise of 40 multidisciplinary researchers from eight Kentucky universities and colleges, including Jenkins at Eastern Kentucky University. 

The researchers are working together to develop 3D printable smart devices, Jenkins explained. While technology to 3D print objects is well-developed, this project focuses on embedding electronics into structural components, like a prosthetic hand, for example. In order for a prosthetic hand to function like a human hand, it needs electronics that sense and respond to touched objects and interface with nerves to allow human-driven movement.  

The challenge in printing electronics is that the materials used for wires and sensors, such as copper and silicon, would need to be printed at very high temperatures – temperatures that would melt the structural components. And that’s where Jenkins’ role comes in. She’s investigating carbon-based polymers that convert light into electricity, just as silicon does in traditional solar cells. In addition to being lightweight, flexible and affordable, these polymers melt at much lower temperatures than silicon, making them candidates for printable electronics. 

“We can envision 3D-printed structures that will need power sources,” Jenkins notes, “so our research focuses specifically on the molecular-level chemistry of polymers that are both highly efficient as solar cells and are potentially printable. In our lab, we have instrumentation that allows us to make different types of polymers and then test their properties – like how much sunlight a polymer can capture, for instance.”

Having students help with the research is Jenkins’ favorite part of what she does. “At Eastern, we can let our students be part of this huge, statewide effort,” she said. “Students get to actually put the things they’re learning about to work, solving big problems.”

She sees students’ participation in research as some of the most valuable experiences they can gain. Through these experiences, students can connect what they learn in the classroom to why it matters, learning what they can do with what they know. In addition, Jenkins said students learn to deal with failure as a result of working on research projects. “If students can leave here being better at persisting through failure until we get something to work, that’s something worth learning,” she said.   

Jenkins has been involved in many solar projects on EKU’s campus. She received an EKU Innovation Fund Award to connect a not-yet-completed new campus facility to solar panels. She also worked on a donor-funded project to add solar arrays on top of the Science Building and by the greenhouse of the Science Building. As part of the agreement with the donor, EKU alumnus Dr. Gary Booth, the money saved on electricity as a result of the solar panels goes to students in the form of the Photon Fellowship. “We all benefit from the solar panels because we emit less carbon dioxide to get the power we need, but we also get to use the monetary savings for scholarships,” Jenkins said. “For me, that’s the most exciting outcome of these arrays.”

Although the KAMPERS project spans just five years, the research and the impact of the project will be ongoing. As a result, the project aims to expand the state’s economy, train students for jobs of the future, and position Kentucky to become a national leader in economic, industrial and commercial success. Already, Jenkins has made significant strides through her solar energy research at Eastern Kentucky University and with the KAMPERS project. Her contributions will continue beyond the KAMPERS project, as she constantly strives to positively impact the planet. 

“There’s a big part of my heart that really just wants to change the world,” Jenkins said. And solar energy research is her way of creating change.