Like many scientists who lived 300 years ago, Benjamin Franklin worked on lots of different problems in science. But it wasn’t enough for him to just understand the science. With each discovery he made an invention: something to make people’s lives easier and safer. He made no money from his inventions, believing that they should be used freely by everyone.

Scientists today

Benjamin Franklin was famous for studying electricity, and for everything he discovered, he also developed a useful application to improve people's lives. Dr Marco Califano is a Royal Society funded scientist at the University of Leeds, who is investigating ways of using the sun's energy to make electricity, so we do not have to rely on fossil fuels such as coal and gas.

 

Dr Marco Califano

What do you work on?

My research looks at ways to make the process of converting solar energy (energy which comes from the sun) into electrical energy more efficient. Converting the sun's energy into electrical energy can be expensive and it sometimes needs a large area to collect the sunlight - have you seen big solar panels on the roofs of some people's houses? I want to make it cheaper and easier to make electricity by using sunlight.

To change the solar energy into electrical energy I study what would happen if we used cheap, man-made crystals, which are just a few millionths of a millimetre in size - much smaller than a grain of sand! These crystals are a special type of material known as a semiconductor, and they will hopefully allow much more of the sun's energy to be converted to electrical current than the materials that have been used in the past.

 

What is one important thing you have discovered?

I use very powerful computers (supercomputers!) to make predictions about how the different materials that make up the crystals will act in certain situations, for example when different amounts of light are shone on them.

I use computers because the types of calculations that I need to make are very very complicated, and it would take me a long time if I had to work them out myself. After I have predicted what I think will happen, then other scientists test it out by doing actual practical experiments with the materials.

If my predictions are correct, we might one day discover a way of getting a greater amount of electrical energy from the sun, and this could be really important in helping to provide enough electricity for the world when we run out of fossil fuels.

Who inspired you to become a scientist?

My father inspired me to become a scientist. From a very young age he always encouraged me to be curious about things, not to be satisfied with simply using objects but to look further into the way they work and to ask myself why and how about everything. I think this is what science is about: being curious and trying to explain the whys and the hows. And most of the time it is good fun!

What do you love about your job?

Every day I can feel excited about going to work because I wonder about the new things I might discover. Scientists often go to conferences to share their ideas and sometimes people who I had never met before come up to me and tell me about their experiments that show almost exactly what I had predicted by my calculations. It is a fantastic feeling when someone else has done an experiment that proves my predictions are correct!    

What do you do when you're not at work?

My main hobby is playing with my 5 year old son Matteo. However, as his energies are almost inexhaustible (perhaps I should try to convert them into electrical current instead of the sunlight!). I have to work hard to keep up with him, so I enjoy running, hiking, and swimming.

If you could go back in time and meet Benjamin Franklin, what would you like to ask him?

Benjamin Franklin was a great inventor, and I would ask him what it was that made him believe science should be done in order to help other people, as he said "... as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously."