Better solar cells are just some of the sustainability solutions UBC Chemistry graduate students are investigating--with help from Mountain Equipment Co-op.
Solar energy holds a ton of potential. The amount of energy in sunlight striking the earth for 40 minutes is enough to power the world for a year. The tough part: finding effective ways to capture and convert that sunlight into usable power. That's a large part of the reason that Matt Roberts and Angela Kuchison, doctoral candidates in the Department of Chemistry supported by the MEC Graduate Research Fellowship in Sustainability, are investigating more effective ways to harness solar power.
"More than two-thirds of the research groups in the Department of Chemistry conduct pure research of relevance to sustainability," notes Ed Grant, head of the department. "The MEC fellowship really encourages our students to work hard in fields contributing to innovations in sustainability. It also underscores the commitment of MEC and UBC Science to sustainability--not just in the teaching and research endeavor, but as a business practice."
Roberts' research focuses on a class of platinum-based compounds used as photo-sensitizers, which can absorb the sun's light and convert it from light energy into chemical energy. That chemical energy can in turn be used to power other reactions, like splitting water to form hydrogen, a clean alternative fuel source.
Kuchison is exploring the problem from a slightly different angle: looking at the potential of using new chemical compounds in dye-sensitized solar cells, a new class of cells that are cheap to manufacture. "Developing alternative energy sources is key for the future of the planet," she notes. "The willingness of a local company to support sustainable research not only encourages me to investigate new solutions, but gives me hope that business can help push this agenda forward."
Support from MEC is helping Simone Gross study how common atmospheric pollutants react with organic substances that are found in high concentrations over smoggy cities. The fellowship has allowed Gross to focus on her work that could be crucial in estimating and tracking the impact these reactions have on human health and the environment.
Kyle Parker is also harnessing the power of chemistry to investigate sustainability issues: in this case, ways to form nitrogen-containing compounds (the basis of much of the world's fertilizer supply) without ammonia. Processes that use ammonia to create nitrogen fertilizer consume between one and two per cent of the world's energy supply.
"Awards like the MEC Fellowship serve an important role in getting students to look closely at how we solve certain problems through their research not just in our private lives, but on a larger scale," says Parker. "It's encouraging to see businesses take an interest, and make a financial contribution to help develop and investigate new ways of solving environmental problems."
Source: Science Connect, Faculty of Science, May 2008
Photo courtesy of Faculty of Science