With the ever-changing climate, the need for new energy resources is becoming more significant, and a University of Alberta professor's research on plastic solar panels has been garnering serious attention, including a visit from the royal couple.
Jillian Buriak, a chemistry professor at the U of A and a senior research officer at the National Institute for Nanotechnology, was recently in Calgary to give a presentation to the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge about her research on plastic solar panels.
"The amount of sunlight that hits terrestrial earth in one hour is equivalent to the amount of power consumed worldwide in a year," was how Buriak began her presentation to the royal couple at the opening celebrations of the Calgary Stampede.
Her team, known as the Buriak group, along with Michael Brett and his group in electrical and computer engineering, has been working on making plastic solar panels more efficient, more durable, and price competitive.
"We want to make solar cells like newspapers, where you roll them out and spray them," Buriak said.
Silicon has been the most common material used to make solar panels, but they are very expensive to make and are not cost-competitive.
"When you are converting silica, i.e. sand, into silicon you have to remove the oxygen molecules off the silica molecule. That is a very strong bond that takes a lot of energy and that energy is expensive," Buriak explained. Her team has been working to perfect plastic solar panels that can function similarly to silicon.
"The difference between silicon and plastic is that silicon, in spite of its cost, does everything that a solar cell has to do. It has to absorb light, it has to separate charges, and then it has get them out so they can do work. Plastics, on the other hand, are generally insulating unless they are highly coloured they are not very absorbing," Buriak said.
So far, plastic solar panels are fairly effective, but now the problem is longevity, and this is where Buriak's group has had a major influence. Both teams have made significant steps towards making plastic solar panels more stable and therefore more durable.
As a result of this work, one of Buriak's graduate students, along with two graduate students from Brett's group have teamed up to form a company called Lightpower. The three students were finalists in TEC-Edmonton's Venture Prize and won money to help them get the company started. Their hope is to have a product on the market by 2015.
Buriak was asked by U of A Vice President (University Relations) Debra Pozega Osburn if she would be able to give a presentation on July 8. Two weeks later, she found out that she would be presenting to the Duke and Duchess. At the presentation Buriak had some samples of the plastic solar cells which her group had made into all sorts of shapes.
"I gave Prince William a solar cell where we put the electrode in the shape of a Canadian flag, and I gave [Princess Kate] one of the most beautiful leaves," Buriak said. She added that the royal couple seemed very interested in the research and were fascinated by the fact that such a thin panel could be used to reduce the world's dependency of fossil fuels.
Buriak said she hopes this research can be taken to third-world countries where electricity is in short or no supply.
"There are some environmentalists, and we are not talking about extremists here, who are proposing that any fossil fuels that we are going to burn should be exclusively for making renewable energy devices, because that is an investment in the future as opposed to just burning them, it's a way of transforming your fossil fuels, it's a way of investing it."