The Paint That Can Turn Any Surface into a Solar Cell

Carbon, the infamous villain of global warming, could also hold the key to a green energy revolution

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Solar power is one of the few ways we can generate electricity without increasing carbon emissions. Unfortunately, solar cells have not been widely adopted partly because they are too expensive. To overcome this barrier, Dwight Seferos, Associate Professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Toronto, is studying new, low-cost materials for solar cells, that can replace the current gold standard of silicon.

Prof. Seferos’ research is focused on carbon-based materials. Carbon is a hugely abundant resource on the planet and offers many advantages for processing; it can be melted, it can be molded, it can be flexible.  “We have lots of carbon feed stocks and we use them for all kinds of things: for pharmaceuticals, for the plastics that are used in all kinds of commodity materials, so it really is a very readily available source. The challenge is making a plastic that behaves like a semi-conductor,” explains Seferos.  That’s because most carbon-based materials, such as plastics, are insulators, that can’t capture energy from the sun and convert it to electricity.

Despite the current roadblocks, Prof. Seferos imagines a future, 10-20 years from now where such carbon-based solar materials could be incorporated directly into our buildings and houses.  “Now these can be painted on, or they can be stand-alone materials, but in the long-term… we’d like to reduce the weight, reduce the cost, and make this technology widely adopted.”

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Dwight Seferos is a Seattle Washington native and attended Western Washington University, completing a B.S. degree in 2001. He entered graduate school at the University of California, Santa Barbara where he worked under the supervision of Guillermo Bazan on the synthesis and study of organic molecules with delocalized pi-electron systems. After completing a Ph.D. in 2006, Seferos moved to Northwestern University where he was an American Cancer Society Postdoctoral Fellow with Chad Mirkin. In 2009, Seferos began his independent laboratory in the Chemistry Department at the University of Toronto where he and his highly talented team of students and postdoctoral fellows study the optical and electronic properties of semiconducting polymers and nanomaterials. He has authored or coauthored over 70 publications and has more than 15 patents and patent applications. Since beginning his independent career he has been recognized with a DuPont Young Professor Grant (2011), Ontario Early Research Award (2011), Canada Research Chair (2012), and Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship (2013).