Chemists reshape the future of solar power and battery efficiency

Imagine a world of solar clothes and solar-powered tents — lab creates the molecular building blocks.

By Leanne Yohemas
January 2016

Greg Welch beams with the pride of a new homeowner as he shows off his digs. It’s not his residence in Calgary but a bright lab with shiny white countertops, yellow doors and the clean lines of a modern Ikea kitchen.

“Students spend most of their lives here,” says Welch, assistant professor of clean energy and organic chemistry, who recently moved back to his hometown from Halifax where he worked at Dalhousie University. “This space is amazing. It is state of the art, one of the best in the world.”

Welch has come full circle. He was born and raised in Calgary, completed his Bachelor of Science here in 2003, carried on with his studies and research at the University of Windsor, University of California Santa Barbara and Dalhousie. But when a posting came up at the University of Calgary, he yearned to come back to his roots.

It is here that Welch, a chemist in the Faculty of Science, and his team of grad students carry out their research and teach the next generation of innovators.

'We make things with molecules, something brand new'

It is of utmost importance to Welch that his research has a particular utility. “We aren’t physicists or engineers, we are chemists. We make things with molecules, something brand new that has never been made before,” says Welch. “We use the fundamentals of chemistry, of basic science, to create new materials that have a purpose or a function.”

These new materials are used for energy conversion and efficiency. “One of our champion projects is to develop new materials and new processes for organic solar cells. They are a third-generation technology and have been around for 20 years but haven’t gone fully commercial so there is still a lot of research and development involved,” he says.

These solar cells can be easily printed because they are based on organic dyes, and can be formulated into conductive inks. The cells can be printed like newspaper, at low cost and high speed.

Organic, in this case, means organic compounds — carbon-based matter including gas, liquid or other chemicals and remains of plants and animals.

Exciting new generation of solar cells

The solar cells are flexible, ultra low-weight, low-cost, sustainable, and can be produced in different colours, which opens up a wide range of options, including windows and decorations, solar-powered tents, cell phone chargers and even solar clothes. The way they are constructed allows them to operate indoors under artificial light.

“What we are doing is constructing innovative materials and devices on a small scale in an effort to make breakthrough discoveries that will accelerate the commercializing of this fascinating technology, a technology that one day will improve the quality of our everyday lives,” he adds.

Printable solar cells are only one aspect of his research. Welch is also looking at improving the efficiency of low-power transistors and energy storage devices, including batteries.

 

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