• Commentary
  • Bio-inspired Solar Energy
  • Quantum Materials

Canada’s role as a clean tech research leader

by CIFAR May 5 / 16

Last month I met with Dr. Mario Molina, the chemist who more than 40 years ago made the Nobel Prize-winning discovery that chlorofluorocarbons were depleting the Earth’s ozone layer.

alan-bernstein-portrait-2015-250x357His work led directly to the 1987 Montreal Protocol, the international agreement that banned CFCs and reversed damage to the ozone layer.

Molina’s work and the Montreal Protocol are a hopeful story in a time when we face the threat of catastrophic climate change from greenhouse gas emissions. That story of science to policy illustrates how governments can be convinced to act on scientific evidence.

I met Dr. Molina last month while I was in Mexico as part of a CIFAR delegation invited by SENER, the Mexican Ministry of Energy. Joining me was Prof. Alán Aspuru-Guzik, a senior fellow in CIFAR’s new Bio-inspired Solar Energy program, and a quantum chemist at Harvard.

The Mexican government had invited us as part of a program that uses funds from oil revenues to explore sustainable energy solutions. We spoke before several hundred faculty and students at the National Autonomous University of Mexico, and also had the opportunity to meet a number of Mexican scientists and officials.

Alán described his work on quantum chemistry, and how it could help to pave the way to an entirely new approach to harnessing energy from the sun. I presented CIFAR’s model of bringing together the world’s best minds across national and disciplinary borders to address questions of importance to the world. Together, our two presentations, entitled “CIFAR and the Future of Energy,” were received enthusiastically and with great interest, about both CIFAR and about the Bio-inspired Solar Energy program, led by Dr. Ted Sargent from the University of Toronto.

We had several discussions with senior Mexican government officials about how CIFAR and Mexico might work together around clean tech and around other areas of common interest. I was quite impressed with the quality, intelligence and the enthusiasm of our Mexican colleagues.

Here in Canada, there is a new mood and approach towards climate change and renewable energy, a sense that Canada must play its role in the community of nations to ensure that we address climate change in a rapid and innovative way. Prime Minister Trudeau is clearly committed to ensuring that Canada is a leader in this global effort.

What is Canada’s role in addressing the challenge? We emit slightly less than 2 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gases. Any cuts we make in GHG emissions, therefore, will have little effect on the world’s total emissions. I believe we can do two critical things: first, we can provide leadership, articulating a way forward and helping to marshal the international will to cut greenhouse gases and keep global warming below catastrophic levels.

And we can do something else. As Bill Gates has pointed out, the solution to climate change will not happen because of treaties negotiated in Paris and signed in New York. The solution to climate change is science and innovation. And Canada has a rich base of outstanding science that we can contribute to the global effort.

Here at CIFAR, we have launched the Bio-inspired Solar Energy program to develop a disruptive new way of harnessing energy from the sun. The group of scientists and engineers who now make up the program are a who’s who of the top physicists, chemists and engineers in the world. The group includes one of the world’s most cited scientists in any discipline over the past five years and a MacArthur Genius Awardee, amongst others.

But our efforts don’t stop there: our program in Quantum Materials, led by Dr. Louis Taillefer (University of Sherbrooke), is trying to understand the electrical conductivity properties of certain materials. Their research could lead to new superconductors ­– materials that have the ability to conduct electricity without any loss of energy. If they are successful, then it would be possible to transmit electrical energy over large distances from regions of the world where there is abundant hydro, wind or solar energy to urban areas where there are high population densities.

With leadership from our politicians, scientists, and institutions, Canada can be an international leader in the most important moonshot of all: developing disruptive technologies that will enable all of us to meet the world’s voracious requirements for energy to heat and cool our homes, cook our food, and satisfy our transportation requirements, all without releasing more GHGs into the atmosphere. And the Mexico trip re-affirmed my belief that the way forward is science; science that is interdisciplinary, built on the highest level of excellence, and international. I came home reaffirmed in the belief that CIFAR is playing a central role in bringing the world’s best scientists together to address this global challenge.