The Small Matter of Big Solutions

At the University of Alberta, Professor Jillian Buriak introduces nanotechnology in the search for more efficient solar cells.

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Nanotechnology is more than just a set of applications. When people wonder what the next big product will be, the truth is more nuanced. Jillian Buriak, professor of chemistry at the University of Alberta, calls it a quiet revolution. For the first time in history, scientists from all disciplines are working together towards solving big problems; the ability to control matter at the atomic and molecular level is how nanotechnology is opening doors all across the sciences.

One area that Buriak’s research addresses is the critical need for renewable energy. Even by the most conservative estimates, global energy needs are going to double by 2050, and triple by 2100. The economic and social security of our civilization will depend on our ability to meet these needs.

Buriak is developing solar cells to respond to this challenge. In a single hour, more solar energy hits the Earth than all of humankind uses in a year. Harnessing that energy will be sustainable, scalable, and will even work for remote communities.

Nanotechnology is key to making this possible. “In our solar cells, we’re making a lot of nanomaterials in there and we need to control them so that every single photon light that comes from the sun is captured in a way that doesn’t allow for other nasty side things to go on which leads to inefficient solar cells,” explains Buriak. “We need to have that control over matter – this length-scale – and nanotechnology enables that.”

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Prof. Jillian Buriak received an A.B. from Harvard University in 1990, and a Ph.D. from the Université Louis Pasteur in Strasbourg, France, in 1995. After a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada postdoctoral appointment at The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. Buriak started her independent faculty career at Purdue University in 1997, being promoted to associate professor, with tenure, in 2001. In 2003 she joined the University of Alberta as a full professor, Canada Research Chair, and Senior Research Office. She was on the Board of Reviewing Editors (BoRE) at Science from 2003 to 2008 (handlng 7-10 papers per week), was an Associate Editor at ACS Nano from 2009 to 2013 (handling >500 papers per year), and in 2014, became the Editor-in-Chief of the American Chemical Society journal Chemistry of Materials (handling >4000 papers per year). Buriak has co-authored over 100 papers in the area of surface chemistry, nanoscience, synthetic materials chemistry and inorganic nanomaterials, and is named as a co-inventor of over 10 patents.