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Capturing the solar energy market

The Photovoltaic Innovation Network is taking aim at global competitors by developing "made in Canada" solar technologies aimed at lowering production costs and improving the efficiency of commercial photovoltaic cells.
Capturing the solar energy market

Rafael Kleiman looks through a scale model of the Zincblende crystal structure.

McMaster University’s Rafael Kleiman is heading a research effort to make one of Einstein’s strokes of genius pay off for Canada.

If Kleiman and his collaborators across the country succeed, Canada may be able to come from behind to capture a niche in the burgeoning solar energy market by the end of the decade.

Otherwise the risk is that the country’s abundant sunshine could wind up being harvested by photovoltaic devices developed and manufactured elsewhere, much as our forests are today harvested by Finnish machinery.

“If we don’t develop new intellectual property, Canada could lose everything since I don’t think we can compete with other countries on manufacturing costs,” says Kleiman, a professor of engineering physics.

Intellectual property is legalese for patents, licences and other ways of benefiting from research discoveries. In this case, that research centres on photovoltaic cells, devices that transform the sun’s rays into electricity. Originally designed to power satellites in space, the cells then turned up on hand calculators and lately have made the jump to roof panels and large-scale solar farms, both supplying subsidized electricity to the grid.

“Photovoltaics are a game-changer,” says energy guru Walt Patterson, author of Keeping The Lights On: Towards Sustainable Electricity,

“Instead of a commodity coming from some remote location, electricity becomes part of what your building delivers. Photovoltaics, evolving at breathtaking speed, will be a key technology for high-performance, low-carbon energy systems.”

But other countries like Germany and Japan are well ahead of Canada in the development and manufacturing of photovoltaic cells, currently the fastest growing energy technology with production doubling every two years.

So Kleiman and researchers at a dozen other universities along with a score of industrial and public sector partners recently created the Photovoltaic Innovation Network financed by $5 million from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), a federal granting agency.

Over the next five years the Network, centered at McMaster with Kleiman as scientific director, will pursue 13 novel projects aimed at lowering production costs and improving the efficiency of commercial photovoltaic cells, the best of which convert less than 20 per cent of sunlight’s potential energy to electricity.

“I don’t think there will be a single killer app in photovoltaics for some years and I don’t think we know enough now to choose the likely winners and losers,” says Kleiman who holds the Canada Research Chair in MicroElectricalMechanical Systems.

“If you’re playing catch-up like Canada is, you’re sometimes better off giving up on existing technologies and instead trying to leapfrog to new technologies.”

One leapfrog approach being pursued by the Network is to take advantage of the transformations in properties at the nanoscale. (A nanometre is one-billionth of a metre and a human hair is roughly 10,000 nanometres wide.)

Using highly specialized lab equipment to work in this Lilliputian realm, Network researchers will try to sculpt the surface of the silicon that is a common material in many photovoltaic cells. Currently the smooth silicon surface reflects as much as 40 per cent of the incoming light. Create the correct contours, however, and much more the light will be trapped and available for possible conversion to electricity.

Another Network theme is focused on a hybrid photovoltaic cell that would combine the low cost of organic materials such as polymers with the longevity of inorganic materials such as silicon or exotic crystals such as silicon gallium arsenide.

That hybrid approach is also a way of deliberately bringing together chemists – who work mostly on organic cells – with physicists – traditionally favouring inorganic materials.

“They’re two different communities that look at things in different ways and use different language. But they have a lot to offer each other so we have to work to break down those barriers,” says Kleiman.

An emphasis on collaboration is a hallmark of the Photovoltaic Research Network. On average each of the 13 research projects involves participants drawn from three member institutions as well as researchers from two of the four research themes – organic, inorganic, hybrid and nano-structured.

Another hallmark is an overarching emphasis on training. Most of the $5 million grant is earmarked for nurturing 88 future photovoltaic researchers – 39 undergrads, 22 Master’s students, 23 PhD candidates and four post-doctoral fellows. In addition to salaries for working with the Network’s researchers, the trainees will get money for travel to conferences and to take part in week-long hands-on courses where they will actually design and make photovoltaic devices.

Kleiman says Canada lost a generation of photovoltaic researchers when interest in alternate energy sources plunged with the return of cheap oil in the 1980s. But now both high-priced oil and concern over climate change have aroused serious political interest in solar energy, as demonstrated by Ontario’s recent multi-billion-dollar green energy announcements

The Network’s 11 industrial partners have also promised to provide paid internships and co-op positions for the 88 over the five year span.

Photovoltaics industry pioneer Ian MacLellan says the Network, and its focus on the next generation of researchers, is crucial in helping create a solar energy industry in Canada.

“We may not be able to compete head-to-head with the biggest players in the world but I think we can develop niches,” says MacLellan, founder and vice-chairman of Waterloo-based ARISE Technologies, a photovoltaic manufacturer with sales of $30 million last year.

The Photovoltaic Innovation Network is only the most recent of three major undertakings in this frontier research field for Rafael Kleiman and McMaster.

In March 2008 Kleiman’s research team received a $4.1 grant from ARISE and the Ontario Centres of Excellence to speed commercialization of a technique to make photovoltaic cells that could reach 30 per cent conversion levels through high-purity crystals and precision layering.

Then last year McMaster received matching $5.1 million grants from the Ontario Research Fund and the federal Canada Foundation for Innovation to allow Kleiman to outfit a world-class photovoltaic research facility. Plans for modifying existing lab space are being drawn up and the new machinery and instruments is scheduled to be in place next year.

“We’ll be able to do a much better job of analyzing why we’re not getting more of the energy out of the sunlight,” says Kleiman.

And that all leads back to a conceptual leap by Einstein in 1905 for which he was later awarded the Nobel Physics Prize.

Until then science had considered that light and other forms of electromagnetic radiation behaved like waves, which is why we still refer to light waves and radio waves.

But the wave model couldn’t explain the actual energy levels measured in the electrons that light knocked loose from inside the atomic structure, the action involved in the closely related photoelectric and photovoltaic effects.

Einstein resolved the paradox by demonstrating that light also behaved like a stream of separate packets of energy which he called quanta and which are now known as photons.

So in a use of the phrase that is almost scientifically accurate, you can say that Kleiman and his colleagues are aiming for quantum leaps in photovoltaic cells.