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Universities are all fired up to exploit the sun's power

The Lily Lake Solar facility near Peterborough, Ont., in 2010.

FRED THORNHILL/fred thornhill The Globe and Mail

A video game inspired Martin Gerber to pursue a research career in sustainable energy.

It was called Final Fantasy VII and involved a scenario in which a planet's energy runs out, says the 24-year-old graduate student. He spent hours playing it when he was younger and it got him thinking about new ways to generate electricity.

Today, he is part of a photovoltaic research network that was recently awarded $5-million in funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council.

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The group is working on combining different materials to make a more efficient solar cell that will convert energy from the sun into electricity at a cost per watt that can compete will fossil fuels.

Solar cells already power calculators, toys, garden lights and roadside signs in remote parts of Canada.

But other countries, especially Germany, are using them to generate increasing amounts of electricity through rooftop applications and solar farms.

Mr. Gerber had been accepted for graduate work at Cornell University, an Ivy League school in Ithaca, New York, but decided to stay in Canada when he heard about new federal funding for the research network.

"It drew my attention," he says. He is starting his master's degree at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ont., where NSERC's Photovoltaic Innovation Network is based.

The network, led McMaster's Rafael Kleiman, involves 29 scientists and engineers working in the field of advanced solar cell research at 13 Canadian universities, from Simon Fraser University in British Columbia to Dalhousie in Nova Scotia.

It also aims to train 88 people over five years for positions in industry and academia. Eleven private sector companies are also part of the network. Its goal is to accelerate research into solar photovoltaics as well the commercialization of any discoveries.

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This new infusion will allow Canada to become more competitive with world leaders like Germany, Japan, the United States and Australia, says Dr. Kleiman, a professor of engineering physics.

Mr. Gerber likes the idea of being part of a large team.

He has already completed two undergraduate degrees, one in chemical engineering, a second in physics.

Now, his job is to use a number of approaches to "optically characterize" different materials to see how they interact with light.

When you hit a solar cell with light, the electrons get excited and conduct electricity. They stay in that state for a short time before they come back down.

"We want that to be as long as possible, so I'm measuring how long that happens."

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The lab is also combining different materials that can each absorb different parts of the spectrum, including infrared, visible, and ultraviolet.

Dr. Kleiman has eight graduate students.

Some look at new materials at the atomic level, while others characterize their structural properties.

At other universities, researchers will be looking at using "organic," or carbon-based materials.

These would be cheaper, lighter and more flexible than the silicon based products now widely used.

This could prove important in the future, because there may not be enough of the exotic materials now used to dramatically scale up production, says Dr. Kleiman.

Researchers will also be working on hybrids of organic and more traditional materials.

They will also be looking at transparent solar cells that can be integrated into windows.

The global market for solar photovoltaics is at least $1-billion a year, says Dr. Kleiman. But in the future it could be tens of billions a year.



Researchers at universities across the country are working on green energy technologies.

Waste not

The University of Western Ontario's Franco Berruti and Cedric Briens have developed a mobile pyrolysis unit to turn agricultural and forestry waste into valuable products like fuel and fertilizer.

Better batteries

At the University of Waterloo, Professor Linda Nazar is working on developing the science behind better rechargeable batteries, ones that could power plug-in-hybrid electric vehicles or provide energy storage for intermittent energy sources such as solar or wind. The rechargeable lithium-ion batteries used in today's portable electronics are expensive and present some safety concerns for large-scale applications.

Windy weather

The focus is on wind at the University of New Brunswick, where Liuchen Chang is investigating how to produce stable electricity from a source that can gust wildly and then subside. He established the Canadian Wind Energy Strategic Network with funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council, or NSERC, one of federal granting agencies that funds research at universities in Canada. The goal is to solve the technical challenges of wind energy systems in Canada.

Power storage

Heather Andreas at Dalhousie University in Halifax is working on supercapacitors. These are energy storage systems similar to batteries. The could prove useful in a number of alternative energy applications, including storing energy from intermittent power sources like wind or solar panels.

Plant power

John Madden at the University of British Columbia also works on supercapacitors, as well an exploratory project on using the proteins involved in photosynthesis in plants to generate electrical energy from light.

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About the Author

Anne McIlroy has been a journalist for more than 25 years. She joined the Globe in 1996, and has been the science reporter as well as the parliamentary bureau chief. She studied journalism at Carleton University in Ottawa. More

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