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Soaking Up Sunlight

Most of us hate to see a sunny day go to waste, but University of Ottawa researcher Karin Hinzer is actually doing something about it. The work of her SUNLAB research group is focused on making solar panels more efficient so that they capture more of the sun's energy.

The typical solar cell loses energy through reflection and the generation of heat. Plus, it only captures one band on the spectrum of the sun's energy—visible light. However, invisible bands, such as ultra violet and infrared, are just as rich in energy. Dr. Hinzer's group studies semiconductor quantum dots that can capture the entire solar spectrum.

"Most solar cells in use right now are only about 20 per cent efficient at most," says Dr. Hinzer. "We are working in collaboration with companies in creating marketable products that are up to 40 per cent efficient—and we're now aiming for 50 per cent."

Dr. Hinzer's team has been one of the pioneers in using nanotechnology to boost performance and absorb more energy. The team also improved solar cell efficiencies by using lenses and other techniques to concentrate sunlight up to 1000 times.

Research from the SUNLAB has already been adapted into the products of one Canadian start-up, Cyrium Technologies, with another preparing to go into production. The potential for job creation is significant and will lead to new businesses in manufacturing, installation and maintenance, and spin-off industries like solar air ventilation and hot water pumps. Currently, the solar market is worth over $70 billion and is growing by about 40 per cent per year.

"Collaboration with the SUNLAB is a real win-win proposition for our industry partners and students alike. Industry researchers love the fresh and positive outlook that students bring to the lab and students get invaluable experiences and skills to put on their resumes," says Dr. Hinzer.