With global climate change on the rise, finding ways to capture renewable energy sources is becoming more urgent. Today, our energy needs are largely being met by fossil fuels, such as oil and coal, but we are rapidly depleting these natural resources, and damaging our environment by burning them for fuel. One sustainable alternative is solar energy. Ted Sargent, professor of electrical engineering at the University of Toronto, is working on making a new paint-based solar cell that would be low-cost, lightweight, portable, and efficient, bringing sustainable electricity anywhere that it is needed.
Unlike fossil fuels, Sargent explains, “the sun is this incredible, vast resource. We get more sun reaching the Earth’s surface everyday than we need to power the world’s energy needs. In fact, in an hour, we get enough to meet our energy needs for a year; it’s that abundant.” To achieve a better solar cell, Sargent is working at the interface of chemistry, physics, materials science, and electrical engineering to understand the relationships between light and electrons. He is developing a liquid for solar capture that can be applied as a paint, and that can be printed using roll-to-roll processes similar to those used to print newspapers. These paints would absorb sunlight and use it to generate electricity.
Sargent envisions solar cells that are so minimal that installing one might be as simple as unrolling a sheet onto a rooftop, or applying a decal to a streetcar or phone. “We picture a world in which solar cells are so convenient… They are so little in their consumption of materials that we change the paradigm of solar energy from one that takes planning, major capital investment, to one where it’s all over the place because it’s so compelling and convenient,” says Sargent.