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Chemists quietly reshape the future of solar power and battery efficiency

Imagine a world of solar clothes and solar-powered tents — Greg Welch's lab creates the molecular building blocks
January 12, 2016
Assistant professor Greg Welch, standing at right, and his team of grad students at the University of Calgary work to create new materials for energy conversion and efficiency. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary

Assistant professor Greg Welch, standing at right, and his team of grad students at the University of Calgary work to create new materials for energy conversion and efficiency. Photos by Riley Brandt, University of Calgary 

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, on the top floor of the University of Calgary’s Energy Environment Experiential Learning building where 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.

Welch is quick to point out that he’s not the guy who is going around selling solar cells: his work is more fundamental. “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.

Miniature nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer speeds process

Welch says his team’s work has been greatly accelerated with a recent acquisition of new technology. Just before Christmas he purchased a miniaturized nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer that he says has already sped up the research.

While the large-scale spectrometers have been used to test chemical compounds for purity for decades, Calgary tech startup Nanalysis is one of four companies in the world that has produced a miniature model that can sit on a countertop, giving researchers access to a crucial tool for analysis right in the lab. Most universities, including Calgary, have large spectrometers set up in basements that require more maintenance, take longer to use and can cost over $1 million. This new model has most of the same functions at a fraction of the cost and requires very low maintenance.

Welch has received funding for his work and capital costs from a few different sources including the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada and the University of Calgary.

Learning extends to leading teams, communication and solving problems

Welch says innovation is essential for student learning. 

Students need proper training and the opportunity to work on innovative projects that can lead to big discoveries, innovations, new technologies and potential commercialization and opportunities for spin out companies. Welch says learning goes beyond lectures by teaching students to be team leaders, how to communicate, and solve problems.

“I think ultimately there is no research without teaching and there is no teaching without research. They go hand and hand. They are completely complementary to one another,” he says.

He must have the right formula. Many of his graduate students followed him to the University of Calgary.

“I love this building, the lab is top notch and opportunities are better here,” says Abby Payne, a graduate student who recently moved to Calgary from Halifax to continue her work with Welch. “The skills that we are learning in his lab are multifaceted. We may not go into the energy field but I feel like I have the skills as a chemist that are applicable in many different fields.”

 

Located in the heart of Canada’s energy sector, the University of Calgary has built a reputation as a global leader in energy research and innovation. With a focus on our low-carbon future, diverse teams are also assessing the effects of energy-related processes while harnessing unconventional hydrocarbon resources through the Energy Innovations for Today and Tomorrow research strategy.