At a Glance

Founded2014
Members22
SupportersThe Arthur J.E. Child Foundation Charles Hantho and Eileen Mercier Chisholm Thomson Family Foundation Jerry and Geraldine Heffernan Max Bell Foundation Metcalf Foundation
PartnersFonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies (FRQNT)
Disciplines
Nanotechnology, including nanomaterials; physical and inorganic chemistry; polymer science; biophysics; chemical, molecular and quantum physics; optics; environmental engineering

How can we learn from nature to harvest energy from the sun?

With energy demand set to double by 2050, there is an urgent need for clean, renewable sources such as solar power.

Our unique approach

CIFAR’s program brings together an international team with backgrounds in nanotechnology, chemistry, biology, biological engineering, materials synthesis and more. Together they are able to examine the problem from multiple perspectives, and create a new framework for thinking about the problem that spans multiple disciplines.

The Bio-inspired Solar Energy program looks to photosynthetic organisms for inspiration on how to create solar energy technology. Fellows tackle photon capture and conversion to electrical energy; and fuel catalysis and storage.

beautiful warm sunflower close

Why this matters

Today 85 per cent of human energy demands are met by burning fossil fuels. This releases CO2 into the atmosphere and contributes to global warming, population growth and increased standards of living will double our energy demand from 15 terawatts to 30 terawatts by 2050. Solar energy technology has made great strides. But conventional silicon solar cells are hitting the limits of their efficiency and affordability, and there are still no good solutions for storing solar energy. Technological breakthroughs will be needed to meet increasing demand.

In depth

Biological organisms embody powerful lessons for energy conversion. Plants shuttle absorbed solar energy with almost no loss from light-absorbing antennae to biochemical reaction centres, and convert carbon dioxide into carbon-based fuels, all with an efficiency which artificial carbon-bond synthesis cannot yet approach. They do all of this while propagating and repairing themselves.

A major goal of the program is to find better ways to harvest the energy from photons. Chlorophyll does this job in photosynthetic organisms, and has optimized the process in a number of ways. For instance, it organizes itself into arrays of antennas that specialize in capturing the energy from a photon and shuttling it to a reaction centre, where the energy is used to raise an electron to a high energy state. Lessons from these antenna arrays could make artificial solar capture much more efficient.

Another major effort is in catalysis and fuel storage. Plants use solar energy to convert carbon dioxide to fuel in the form of sugars with incredible efficiency. CIFAR fellows would like to bring the same efficiency to converting solar to chemical energy, which could be stored, and later converted to electrical energy.

In all of these areas, program fellows will work with industry partners to help define the questions that need to be answered, and also to help create strategies for taking new technologies to market.

Among the goals of the program are:

  • Designing catalysts that can help to synthesize fuels directly from solar energy;
  • Using the lessons of antenna complexes to shuttle energy rapidly and over great distances;
  • Engineering materials that absorb light efficiently, repair themselves, and exhibit other traits found in biological organisms;
  • Developing a systems view that will allow multi-disciplinary researchers to share a common vocabulary about the research question.

READ 2016’s ANNUAL UPDATE 

 

Fellows & Advisors

Photo of Edward Sargent

Edward Sargent

Program Director

Edward Sargent’s research investigates the use of colloidal quantum dots to improve device performance and lower manufacturing costs. By tuning the size and properties of these semiconductor nanoparticles, photovoltaics can…

Read More >

Fellows

Alán Aspuru-Guzik

Senior Fellow

Harvard University

United States

Curtis P Berlinguette

Fellow

University of British Columbia

Canada

Christopher J. Chang

Senior Fellow

University of California, Berkeley

United States

Catherine L. Drennan

Senior Fellow

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

United States

Sharon Hammes-Schiffer

Senior Fellow

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

United States

Mario Leclerc

Senior Fellow

Université Laval

Canada

Karl Leo

Senior Fellow

Dresden University of Technology

Germany

Thomas Mallouk

Senior Fellow

Pennsylvania State University

United States

Gregory Scholes

Senior Fellow

Princeton University

United States

Rienk Van Grondelle

Senior Fellow

VU University

The Netherlands

Aleksandra Vojvodic

Fellow

University of Pennsylvania

United States

Peidong Yang

Senior Fellow

University of California, Berkeley

United States

Advisors

Robert Blankenship

Advisory Committee Chair

Washington University in St. Louis

United States

Richard Cogdell

Advisor

University of Glasgow

United Kingdom

Sir Richard Friend

Advisor

University of Cambridge

United Kingdom

Michael Graetzel

Advisor

École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL)

Switzerland

Shaffiq Jaffer

Advisor

Total American Services

United States

Daniel G. Nocera

Advisor

Harvard University

United States

Vivian Wing-Wah Yam

Advisor

The University of Hong Kong

Hong Kong

Global Scholars

Gabriela Schlau-Cohen

CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar

Massachusetts Institute of Technology

United States

Jeffrey J. Warren

CIFAR Azrieli Global Scholar

Simon Fraser University

Canada

Ideas Related to Bio-inspired Solar Energy

Bio-inspired Solar Energy | News

Improved technique converts CO2 to green fuel

The world needs more fuel and less atmospheric carbon dioxide – and new research by Edward Sargent and his team...

Bio-inspired Solar Energy | Commentary

Canada’s role as a clean tech research leader

Last month I met with Dr. Mario Molina, the chemist who more than 40 years ago made the Nobel Prize-winning...

Bio-inspired Solar Energy | News

Artificial photosynthesis creates methane and butanol from sunlight and water

Inspired by photosynthesis in plants, scientists have built two systems that use sunlight and water to produce methane, the main...

Bio-inspired Solar Energy | Feature

Here comes the sun

THE EARTH is bathed in a constant stream of energy from the sun. This energy is responsible for moving gigantic...

Bio-inspired Solar Energy | Video

Can plants point the way to sustainable energy?

One hour’s worth of the sunlight that hits Earth could satisfy humankind’s energy needs for an entire year. Existing solar...