Media Releases

Connaught Global Challenge grant seeds ambitious solar cell research project

September 23, 2013

TORONTO, ON – What can we learn from plants about mak­ing the best use of the sun’s abun­dant ener­gy? That’s the ques­tion under­ly­ing an ambi­tious new research project that has won $1 mil­lion in the 2012–13 Con­naught Glob­al Chal­lenge fund­ing com­pe­ti­tion.

The project team direc­tor, Ted Sar­gent of the Edward S. Rogers Sr. Depart­ment of Elec­tri­cal and Com­put­er Engi­neer­ing, says the fund­ing will help him and co-inves­ti­ga­tors merge pre­vi­ous­ly dis­parate fields of study—and poten­tial­ly open up a new avenue for cre­at­ing inex­pen­sive, effi­cient, clean ener­gy cap­ture tech­nolo­gies.

On one side of the project are the fields of pho­to­bi­ol­o­gy and quan­tum biol­o­gy. Pho­to­bi­ol­o­gy is about study­ing the inter­ac­tion of light with liv­ing organ­isms like plants. Quan­tum biol­o­gy inves­ti­gates the nanoscale physics of the nat­ur­al world.

“Sci­en­tists, includ­ing lead­ers at U of T, have been advanc­ing our under­stand­ing of how biol­o­gy works, in par­tic­u­lar how solar ener­gy is har­vest­ed by plants and algae,” says Sar­gent. “It’s been a break­through area, and U of T has played a lead­er­ship role.”

The oth­er side of the project is the devel­op­ment of technologies—like solar cells—to har­vest the sun’s ener­gy. U of T has also been a leader in this field. Sar­gent him­self is known for his inno­v­a­tive work in cre­at­ing col­loidal semiconductors—solar cells that can be paint­ed onto a sur­face.

The Con­naught Glob­al Chal­lenge will bring togeth­er these two broad areas of inquiry. Sar­gent hopes that learn­ing more about how plants cap­ture light and trans­fer ener­gy at the mol­e­c­u­lar lev­el, and about and how quan­tum effects at these scales account for nature’s effec­tive­ness and robust­ness in ener­gy cap­ture, will inspire the group as it seeks to cre­ate the next gen­er­a­tion of low-cost, high-effi­cien­cy solar cells and light­ing tech­nol­o­gy.

“The amount of solar ener­gy reach­ing the earth in an hour is enough to meet the world’s ener­gy needs for a year. It’s an incred­i­bly abun­dant source, and nature has fig­ured out how to har­vest it effi­cient­ly, cost-effec­tive­ly and robust­ly,” he says.

Humans, so far, lag behind nature. “We can make low-cost solar cells, but they’re not very effi­cient. We can make them more effi­cient, but then they get expen­sive. Break­ing this com­pro­mise is the crux of next-gen­er­a­tion solar research.”

In addi­tion to solar cells, the group is focus­ing on low-cost light­ing tech­nol­o­gy, because in the devel­oped world, light­ing accounts for 20 per cent of elec­tri­cal demand.

“There are a few things that are just amaz­ing about plants,” says Sar­gent. “One is the anten­na effect.” Plants, he says, have a lot of light-absorb­ing mol­e­cules, main­ly chloro­phyll. Yet the reac­tion that turns this light into stored chem­i­cal ener­gy only hap­pens in a few places in the plant.

“How does the ener­gy get from these many light absorbers to a few reac­tion cen­tres? It’s through a fine­ly tuned and reg­u­lat­ed ener­gy fun­nelling process. Nature has fig­ured out, through the course of evo­lu­tion, how to build incred­i­bly effi­cient fun­nels. This is an idea that we could apply to mak­ing bet­ter solar cells.”

Sar­gent is work­ing with six oth­er U of T fac­ul­ty mem­bers as co-inves­ti­ga­tors: Nazir Kherani of the Edward S. Rogers Sr. Depart­ment of Elec­tri­cal and Com­put­er Engi­neer­ing and the Depart­ment of Mate­ri­als Sci­ence and Engi­neer­ing, Euge­nia Kumache­va, Greg Scholes, and Dwight Sefer­os of the Depart­ment of Chem­istry, Lu Zheng-Hong of the Depart­ment of Mate­ri­als Sci­ence & Engi­neer­ing and David Sin­ton of the Depart­ment of Mechan­i­cal & Indus­tri­al Engi­neer­ing.

The Con­naught Glob­al Chal­lenge fund­ing will allow the inves­ti­ga­tors to come togeth­er with stu­dents and post-doc­tor­al fel­lows who are emerg­ing lead­ers in dif­fer­ent sub­fields of the project. A dis­tin­guished vis­i­tor com­po­nent of the pro­gram will bring Sir Richard Friend of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Cam­bridge to cam­pus. Friend is world-renowned for his work on the physics and engi­neer­ing of car­bon-based semi­con­duc­tors. A sym­po­sium com­po­nent will bring togeth­er lead­ers from the clean-tech com­mu­ni­ty and serve as a cat­a­lyst for part­ner­ships between aca­d­e­mics and research-ori­ent­ed com­pa­nies in Cana­da.

The project, says Sar­gent, involves both basic and applied research. The group is con­stant­ly think­ing about “how to trans­late insights from basic research into prac­ti­cal tech­nolo­gies that can be com­mer­cial­ized.”

The Glob­al Chal­lenge is the mar­quee pro­gram of U of T’s Con­naught Fund. Cre­at­ed from the 1972 sale of Con­naught Lab­o­ra­to­ries, which first mass-pro­duced U of T’s Nobel award-win­ning dis­cov­ery of insulin, the fund invests close to $4 mil­lion annu­al­ly in emerg­ing and estab­lished schol­ars at U of T.

“The idea behind the Con­naught Glob­al Chal­lenge,” says Pro­fes­sor Paul Young, U of T’s vice-pres­i­dent (research and inno­va­tion) and chair of the Con­naught Com­mit­tee, “is to allow our researchers to focus inten­sive­ly on a major chal­lenge of the 21st cen­tu­ry. This project has tru­ly trans­for­ma­tive poten­tial. The co-inves­ti­ga­tors are think­ing cre­ative­ly about how to approach the prob­lem of sus­tain­able ener­gy, and I look for­ward to see­ing what emerges from their col­lab­o­ra­tion.”

The inau­gur­al Con­naught Glob­al Chal­lenge award, giv­en in 2010-11, led to the estab­lish­ment of the Fras­er Mus­tard Insti­tute for Human Devel­op­ment. Today the insti­tute is con­duct­ing ground­break­ing inter­dis­ci­pli­nary research on how fetal and ear­ly life expe­ri­ences influ­ence life­long health and learn­ing.

Sar­gent hopes the 2013 project will jump­start the cre­ation of a “U of T school.”

“We have a chance to lead glob­al­ly. We have all the ingre­di­ents. It’s a ques­tion of bring­ing them togeth­er, which is what the Con­naught Glob­al Chal­lenge will enable us to do.”

The ulti­mate goal: bet­ter solar cells and light­ing tech­nol­o­gy, which means clean­er, renew­able ener­gy.

“This is a huge soci­etal oppor­tu­ni­ty,” says Sar­gent. “Sus­tain­able ener­gy solu­tions are one of the most crit­i­cal envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nom­i­cal needs fac­ing our soci­ety today. We need to solve this prob­lem.”




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