“The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth.” – Mohamed Abdelaal’s story

“Working on renewable energy development is not just a job for us scientists; we are assisting both people and the environment to meet important Sustainable Development Goals in Africa, and globally.”

Mohamed Abdelaal, Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt

In 2018, I joined the GCRF START Program with the support of my supervisor, START Co-Investigator, Prof. Ghada Bassioni. This was the beginning of an exciting new research challenge for me, investigating solar energy by examining the micro-structure of Organic Solar Cells (OSC’s) to monitor how the performance of the cells is affected by their micro-structure under different environmental conditions.  I have faced and overcome many challenges on my path to becoming a solar energy researcher.  My story below explains what has motivated me and how I am benefitting from collaborating with people from the GCRF START grant.

Learning challenges and opportunities in Egypt

I was born in Cairo, Egypt where I have lived most of my life and I love traveling, meeting new people and exploring new cultures, especially when the travel is combined with science and research! During my educational and subsequent research journey, I have faced a lot of different challenges but as someone once said, “The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth” (anon).

GCRF START collaborator, Mohamed Abdelaal, in Egypt. Photo Credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. ©Diamond Light Source

Starting with my secondary school education and my first educational challenge! In 2011, during the Revolution in Egypt, all the education in the country was on hold because of the sudden political circumstances, except for those like me, who were enrolled in international education. I was enrolled in British Secondary education (IGCSE) but due to the situation in Egypt, I had to study the complete syllabus alone at home to ensure I was prepared for the exams, which I was not even sure would take place! Unfortunately, online educational platforms and facilities were not possible at that time but despite these obstacles, I passed secondary school with excellent grades and joined the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University, Egypt, to study for my Bachelor’s degree.

My Bachelor’s degree was in Materials Science and Engineering – a double degree program between Ain Shams University in Egypt and the Technical University of Clausthal in Germany. This meant that in addition to the engineering study and research I had to do, I needed to learn German to undertake study and research in Germany. This also meant I had to manage my time wisely to make sure that both the Engineering study and the German language would be completed in time and with high scores – another challenge!  

A further challenge in Germany, was to study the technical subjects in the German language, yet the only technical expressions I knew were in English! In addition, I had to finish my Bachelor studies early to ensure I didn’t miss the submission date for my Military Service once back in Egypt. Unfortunately, due to delays in receiving my Bachelor certificate, I missed the Military Service submission deadline and had to wait for 6 months. Accordingly, I traveled back to Germany and I found work with Mercedes until the next submission date but at least I had an opportunity to learn some new skills at Mercedes.

Mohamed Abdelaal graduating from his Bachelor’s degree at Ain Shams University, Cairo, Egypt. Photo Credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. © Diamond Light Source

I didn’t want to spend my military service away from the research I ultimately wanted to do, so I decided to do to my Military Service and my Master’s degree at the same time, studying Materials Science and Engineering at Ain Shams University’s Department for Mechanical Design and Production. New challenges awaited as I had to spend a lot of time traveling between the different cities to attend the exams, because my military Service was not in Cairo, where the University is located. I had to repeat some exams which I missed due to Military Service, but I finished all the exams in the end with excellent grades!

Motivated by exciting new research challenges! Organic Solar Cells

Solar cells (also called Photovoltaics or PV) are electronic devices that convert sunlight directly into electricity. Today, PV is one of the fastest-growing renewable energy technologies, and is ready to play a big role in the future global electricity generation mix by providing electricity on a commercial scale and/or arranged in smaller configurations for mini-grids or personal use (IRENA 2020). Non-renewable energy is not yet widely available but by conducting this type of research, I hope one day that this will change. Scientists like myself are working on improving OSC’s because of their high potential to offer cheaper and more flexible energy options[1]. I am motivated by the fact that one day, everyone will benefit from this kind of research, either directly by producing more efficient OSC’s to replace both silicon solar cells and non-renewable energy sources, or indirectly by reducing environmental pollution. If the efficiency of Organic Solar Cells is improved, then countries like Egypt might invest more money and implement additional Solar farms such as the Benban project in Aswan and other solar energy projects.

Building new research networks and using specialised equipment through GCRF START

My research takes place in the Department of Design and Production (Mechanical Division), at the Faculty of Engineering at Ain Shams University; the other part of my research I do in collaboration with START Co-Investigator, Prof. Moritz Riede’s and the AFMD group in the Department of Physics at the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom (UK). GCRF START has introduced me to new research networks and research equipment and made it possible for me to conduct some of my experiments on Solar Cells at the UK’s National synchrotron Diamond Light Source.

GCRF START collaborator, Mohamed Abdelaal, outside the UK’s national Diamond Light Source synchrotron. Photo credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. © Diamond Light Source

In September 2018, I traveled to South Africa on behalf of Prof. Ghada Bassioni to attend a conference funded by GCRF START in Johannesburg. This was a kick-off meeting to help the different groups in Africa get to know each other. Each group presented their research points, progress and future work and I had the pleasure of meeting Prof. Moritz Riede in person and he guided me on my research planning for the coming months. In addition to the technical information we learned during the conference, I met new people from different universities around the world!

GCRF START enabled me to travel to attend the first main START meeting in the UK which took place in March 2019.  At the meeting, with the support of Prof. Ghada Bassioni, I had the opportunity to present about Energy Resources and Challenges in Egypt on her behalf. Then, in January this year (2020) and with the assistance of the GCRF START grant and Prof. Ghada Bassioni’s and Prof. Moritz Riede’s support, I traveled again to the UK but for a longer period this time, and joined Prof. Riede’s group to conduct experiments at both the University of Oxford Vacuum Evaporator (ECHO1) facility, and on Diamond’s the high resolution Beamline I07.

GCRF START collaborator, Mohamed Abdelaal, inside the beamline I07 experimental cabin at the UK’s national Diamond Light Source synchrotron.
Photo credit: Mohamed Abdelaal. ©Diamond Light Source
Professor Moritz Riede and Professor Ghada Bassioni. Photo credit:  Ghada Bassioni. ©Diamond Light Source

However, opportunities always come with challenges and although the plan was to stay until the middle of April, unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 situation, I had to cut short my visit and travel back to Egypt one month earlier. Now I am facing the next challenge of continuing my research during COVID-19 lockdown! But as I said before, “The bigger the challenge, the bigger the opportunity for growth!”

Without START, I wouldn’t have been able to experience these meetings and conferences, and I have learned something new from each of them. To summarise what the GCRF START grant means to me, I would describe it as great exposure and the opportunity to meet new scientists from all over the world, assisting us in building our scientific network. It means facilitating the engagement with audiences through opportunities to give speeches and present our work. Financial support helps us conduct our experiments, access equipment and travel to attend conferences and meetings.

Mohamed Abdelaal presenting on renewable energy resources in Egypt at the first GCRF START meeting at the University of Oxford in the UK, in March 2019.
©Diamond Light Source

Commenting on the collaboration with Mohamed Abdelaal, Prof. Moritz Riede from the University of Oxford, said:

“It’s been great having Mohamed as part of our team in Oxford. Such exchanges are essential if we want to solve global challenges like climate change. Among other benefits, they foster collaboration, create lasting networks and enrich the perspectives of everyone involved. It’s unfortunate that Mohamed’s visit was cut short due to the Covid-19 pandemic, but we got off to a really good start and we continue remotely. We still hope that Mohamed will be able to visit us again soon, and similarly that we’ll be able to visit his group in Egypt, as these exchanges work best if they go both ways. We are in the fortunate position to be part of the GCRF-START project, which supports such collaborations between the UK and partners on the African continent.” 

Related articles

Read more here about Mohamed’s research

Learn more about Solar energy here and the differences between Organic and Inorganic Solar Cells here

Read more here about the UN Sustainable Development Goal 7 for Energy


[1]Organic Solar Cell Materials toward Commercialization; Rongming Xue, Jingwen Zhang, Yaowen Li,* and Yongfang Li; DOI: 10.1002/smll.201801793