Dr. Tansel Karabacak, professor of physics at UA Little Rock, discovered his desire for scientific inquiry in high school. Studying meteorology at a government boarding school in Turkey, he quickly learned that he was asking deep fundamental science questions, and the meteorology program wasn’t satisfying his desire to know more. These questions influenced him to look into the field of physics.
“In those years,I found that [the program] wasn’t sufficient because I already developed these fundamental questions in my character, ‘how’ and ‘why,’” Karabacak said. “I found physics to be a very suitable field for me, because it encourages those questions. I immediately decided I wanted to become a scientist after high school, and I love it.”
After receiving a Bachelor of Science in physics from Middle East Technical University in Ankara, Turkey, he received a Master of Science and Ph.D. in physics from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. He joined the UA Little Rock faculty in 2006.
Pioneer in Thin Film Manufacturing
Karabacak focuses on creating nanostructured thin film technology, tiny sheets of porous layers or isolated nano-features that can be used in a variety of applications, including solar cells, hydrogen fuel cells, and batteries. He was influential in the creation of glancing angle deposited (GLAD) nanostructures, a low-cost production method to create nanostructured materials.
The GLAD process is unique due to its ability to create nanostructures without going through conventional additional processing steps such as oxidation, patterning, or chemical etching. This process also produces nanostructured thin films with greater surface area, which allows the film to generate or store more energy. For example, the more surface area a solar cell has, the more energy it can produce in a solar panel that generates electricity.
In 2017, Karabacak received $400,000 from the U.S. Department of Energy to develop unique high-performance fuel cells to improve the renewable energy infrastructure in the United States. Karabacak and his team are working with United Technologies Research Center, a global company designed to nurture innovation in commercial aerospace, defense, and building industries.
With this funding, he and his team are researching ways to improve polymer electrolyte membrane fuel cells, low-carbon fuel cells that scientists are hopeful can be used for mass transit vehicles such as buses and subways. While these fuel cells are promising to scientists, they still don’t have enough power and durability for large-scale use in mass transportation. Thanks to this funding, Karabacak and his team will try to find a solution to this energy problem.
Karabacak was recently awarded a fellowship from the Arkansas Research Alliance (ARA), a prestigious award that recognizes distinguished researchers from UA Little Rock, Arkansas State University, University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, UAMS, and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff. Each fellow receives a $75,000 grant paid over three years.
Karabacak is excited at the ARA’s emphasis on collaborative research with medical sciences.
“[ARA] has personally helped me build relationships with UAMS and the National Center for Toxicological Research, and I am really excited about that opportunity,” Karabacak said.
In the future, Karabacak wants to continue evolving his thin film manufacturing techniques and develop industrial-scale thin film applications. He also wants to apply the thin film manufacturing process to the medical field. Recently, he worked with the UA Little Rock Department of Biology to create antibacterial surfaces. They are in the preliminary phase of this research, but results look promising.
Karabacak is inspired to use his research to better society. Renewable energy is a hot topic, and many are looking for new ways to lessen our reliance on fossil fuels. Karabacak hopes he can make this transition easier for society.
“Energy is one the most important challenges of our lives. Daily, politically, or on a society [level]. The average person cares about their gas prices. We care about our utility bills… In a broader sense, most of the conflicts in the world are tied to energy… that’s why I felt like I can contribute to the community. By creating a diverse set of energy resources, maybe we can reduce the stress limitation on an individual level or a worldwide level.”
Karabacak is also pleased that the U.S. government has influenced researchers to look into alternative energy technologies.
“Over the past decade, the U.S. government has emphasized developing new materials for energy applications, so that also encouraged me…I was lucky that I found myself in an environment where I have strong interests and funding opportunities.”