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Alberta company harnesses nanotech to create solar-powered windows

Warren Frey
Alberta company harnesses nanotech to create solar-powered windows
APPLIED QUANTUM MATERIALS INC. — Applied Quantum Materials Inc. is developing solar panel technology that can potentially be used in window panels, reducing the need for remote power generation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

An Edmonton startup is turning windows into solar panels using one of the most abundant materials on the planet.

David Antoniuk, the CEO of Applied Quantum Materials (AQM), said others have attempted to integrate glass and photovoltaics but the difference was in the material used.

“There’s been some luminescent solar concentrator development in two key places, Los Alamos National Laboratory and a group in Italy. We knew about their technology but felt it wouldn’t work effectively and economically because of the limitations of the materials they were using,” Antoniuk said.

Those projects used indium, a material Atoniuk said is used extensively in the semiconductor industry and is “almost as expensive and rare as gold.” AQM instead uses silicon, which is widely available.

“Silicon is a very robust material that can operate over a very large temperature range. Our coated glass is colourless and transparent, whereas the competition uses rare, expensive and somewhat toxic indium materials resulting in a tinted product,” he said.

He pointed to temperature differences in Edmonton in the winter, where the outside of a window could be -40 C while on the inside the temperature is around 20 to 25 C degrees.

“That’s a 65-degree variance. Those operating conditions are kind of severe and we want a window to last 30 to 40 years,” Antoniuk said.

The solar energy collection process works by gathering ultraviolet light and bouncing it within the glass onto photovoltaic cells framing the window.

AQM coats the glass with a film that absorbs ultraviolet light, which is not normally used for solar cells. Most cells use visible and infrared light.

“The silicon nanoparticles convert ultraviolet light into infrared, and then the infrared light is channeled or waveguided inside the glass to a thin strip of solar cells,” Antoniuk said.

A thin strip of solar cells framed around the glass then collects the infrared light and converts it to energy.

“We have a 25 times reduction in the amount of solar cells required, and that’s the most expensive part of a solar array,” he added.

Because ultraviolet light can penetrate clouds, Antoniuk said, the windows can gather energy even in conditions where the sun is obscured.

“You can still get sunburn on a cloudy day because of the ultraviolet light,” he said, adding, “the windows can be placed anywhere as they also work with reflected light.”

When they first started experimenting, Antoniuk said, “we started with microscope slides and worked towards bigger panes of glass measuring 20-centimetres-by-20-centimetres and we’ll scale up to a metre.”

“The issue now becomes that we need large pieces of glass and an appropriate mechanism to coat that glass,” he said, adding AQM is approaching manufacturers and others in the glass industry.

AQM was one of 29 companies that shared $20.5 million in funding from the Alberta government’s Climate Change Innovation Technology Framework (CCITF) – Clean Technology Development program, a guide for investment in green companies able to reduce carbon emissions through innovation. The company spun out of work done at the University of Alberta, where it currently resides, though Antoniuk said AQM will move to its own facility off-campus in the spring.

The modules can be built using frames as a power conduit, which would make each window frame a “standalone energy generating unit,” he added.

Buildings account for 40 per cent of all greenhouse gas emissions, he explained, and “if buildings can be self-powered or near net zero, you’re eliminating the cost of remote power generation and transmission, which will have a major effect on emissions.”

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