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.
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.
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.
Contact the program’s senior director, Pamela Kanellis