Sunlight is an abundant renewable resource, but solar panels are expensive and yet to be widely used. University of Calgary chemistry professor Dr. Curtis Berlinguette is working on making panels cheaper and commercially viable.
"We have like five to six orders of magnitude more sunlight striking the Earth than the entire global community currently uses," said Berlinguette. "So it all comes down to cost."
Silicon is currently used for solar panels and has an enormous upfront cost. Berlinguette is looking at replacing silicon with titanium dioxide-- an inexpensive and readily available material found in household products like toothpaste and white paint. Titanium dioxide is a strong conducting material, but it is also white and reflects sunlight. Berlinguette's solution is to mix the titanium with a dye to make dye-sensitized solar cells.
"Once you shine light on the dye, it tends to decompose over a period of time," Berlinguette added. "We're trying to both make cheaper dyes, more cost effective dyes and more stable dyes."
The solar cells that Berlinguette are developing only last for about a year, but cost $200 less per square metre than traditional cells.
"Right now we're just generating electricity and that only makes up about half of the market because electricity isn't going to do us a lot of good with cars," said Berlinguette. "We also have to be able to find a way to store this energy and turn it into liquid fuels."
Berlinguette emphasized solar panels only generate energy when the sun is out and it has to be used right away. He hopes storing the energy will increase efficiency. He and his team aim at capturing the sun's energy by oxidizing water to make hydrogen fuel cells. Energy made by the solar cells could then be stored and later used for household needs or vehicles.
"They form hydrogen fuel, which is now an energy-rich product," said Berlinguette. "You can just store that and use it up later on wherever you want to use it."
Berlinguette was named the Canada Research Chair in Energy Conversion for his work with solar panels. He also received a grant from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation's Leaders Opportunity Fund for his research in alternative energy.