The “Great Race” to Capture ‘Cheap-Efficient’ Solar Energy – Are the Answers at the University of Toronto & KAUST?

QDOT images 6The global race to harvest the sun’s energy has researchers all over the world competing to develop the new technologies that they hope will end our reliance on fossil fuels.

One of the latest announcements is from a team at Michigan State University that’s developed a clear pane of plastic that could be used on windows to capture sunlight. ScienceDaily, an online publication of research news, reports that the luminescent solar concentrator, as it’s called, has the potential to revolutionize commercial or industrial window design by turning windows into large-scale collectors of solar energy.  

But even while science writers enthusiastically describe the promise of this latest solar technology, researchers immersed in the field tend to greet the news more cautiously.

Professor Ted Sargent, a leader internationally in the development of “paintable” solar cells, which has spawned related research around the world, says “what’s clearly different and clearly interesting” is that the Michigan team’s work allows them to take a significant part of the sun’s rainbow spectrum, convert it into a single colour and “put it off to the edges” of the plastic pane.

U of Toronto professor-sargent-s-lab-members-zhijun-ning-and-oleksandr-vozny-examining-a-new-paint-on-solar-chi

Professor Sargent’s lab members, Zhijun Ning and Oleksandr Vozny, examining a new paint-on solar chip. (Ted Sargent/University of Toronto)

‘If this development can go all the way,” says Sargent, it offers the possibility of yet another venue for deploying solar cells. Instead of just putting solar panels on the roof of a house, says Sargent, these transparent cells could be placed on windows and windshields.

But Sargent says that in the search for the solar technology breakthrough that will transform the world, “this one’s not there yet.”

“They kind of get the light ready in an appealing way,” says Sargent. Problem is, the mostly transparent material is “nice for a window, but solar cells have to absorb light, so it’s not good for collecting light.”

The solar chip

The paint-on solar chip, about the size of a postage stamp. (Ted Sargent/University of Toronto )

Many new developments in the solar field are plagued by those kinds of trade-offs — between cost of production and efficiency. In the case of a luminescent solar concentrator for windows, Sargent says if it can be manufactured cheaply enough it has the potential for wide-spread application by turning windows and window walls around the world into solar harvestors, but at the cost of inefficiently capturing the full potential of the sun’s energy.

Sargent’s own work in nanotechnology led to an ink-based solar cell — essentially suspending the ingredients of solar cells in liquid that could be “painted’ onto any surface.

In a Tedx Toronto talk, Sargent describes the incredible potential of solar energy:  “Every hour enough energy reaches the earth from the sun to power the earth for an entire year.”

It’s all about the technology,” says Sargent.  “Cheap and efficient is the holy grail.”

Led by Sargent, a researchers at U of T are re-imagining the solar cell. Conventional cells use silicon, “a beautiful semi-conductor material”, limited by what Sargent calls “a quality of rigid perfection,” accompanied by equally rigid costs associated with the manufacturing process and installation.

Sargent’s team has developed a solar cell that he says is more akin to printing a newspaper – a semi-conductor ink printed onto a flexible backing.  Unlike silicon-based cells, in this application solar cells are painted on a light-weight flexible carpet that can be spread out on a roof, a road or any other surface exposed to the sun.

“You can literally paint surfaces with this ink” – a cheap way to make a solar cell, says Sargent. “And it’s very black – the perfect absorber of visible light and of infrared light.”

Solar conference coming

Ted Sargent is hosting a conference in Toronto next October with world leaders in solar technologies. There will be a public lecture by Connaught Symposium guest of honour Professor Sir Richard Friend (Cambridge University) on Wednesday, October 8, 2014 at 8 p.m. at the Royal Conservatory of Music. It is open to all, with $10 tickets going on sale on September 3.  Professor Sir Richard Friend is the world’s most renowned scholar in the field of energy harvesting. See more here.

“This group of researchers has come together around the idea that nature offers us ideas and inspirations to develop cost-effective solar technologies. It’s such an important topic for scientists, politicians and public and it impacts the future of our planet,” said Sargent.

“Sir Richard Friend is one of the leading researchers.  He’s also a truly engaging speaker from Cambridge who can speak to the big picture about what we can learn from nature and potential for solar-energy harvesting.”

That capacity to absorb infrared light is especially powerful because the spectrum includes as much infrared as visible light.  But, says Sargent, the infrared portion of the sun’s spectrum is often ignored  And yet, when the sun beats down on our face, much of the heat we feel is infrared light.

Sargent’s group led the world in making most efficient solar cells in the world based on ink-based colloidal quantum dots.  A finished solar cell — about the size of a postage stamp – has the ability to both absorb the sun’s energy and to extract it as electricity.

In an interview with Metro Morning‘s Matt Galloway, Sargent said that at this point, the technological breakthrough that will revolutionize the world’s energy production is “years, not decades away.

But it will require teams of researchers working in many different disciplines to get there, “from chemistry to physics to material science.”

In Sargent’s case, It’s led to a collaboration with Saudi Arabia’s KAUST (King Abdullah University of Science and Technology), a new but well-funded university that has made the development of cheap, efficient solar energy one of its main research goals.

The collaboration carries intriguing strategic possibilities.

Ted Sargent

Ted Sargent is a professor at University of Toronto. (Ted Sargent/University of Toronto)

Historically, Saudi Arabia’s major export is fossil fuels but in the future, says Sargent, Saudi Arabia intends to be a world leader in exporting technology associated with solar energy.

It’s supported by that other natural resource that Saudi Arabia has in such abundance — sunshine.

And nature itself is teaching researchers to think differently.  In the international race to develop cheap, efficient solar technology, Sargent is increasingly turning to nature to learn its processes.

“It’s remarkable what nature does,” says Sargent. “It’s the epitome of ‘efficient-enough’ solar capture. How much does it cost for grass to grow or for a leaf to grow on a tree? Nature has its own systems.”

Sargent speaks with the kind of respect that can only come from a lifetime of trying to crack one of the world’s most urgent environmental challenges.  Nature, says Sargent, proves that it’s possible to cover the earth with solar harvestors.  “It’s an inspiration and challenge to researchers to do the same.”

Renewable energy for desalination: An interview with HE Dr Abdulrahman Al-Ibrahim

Water 2.0 open_img

This feature news is part of Singapore International Water Week’s (SIWW) series of one-on-one interviews with global water industry leaders, Conversations with Water Leaders. In this edition, HE Dr Abdulrahman M Al-Ibrahim, Governor of Saline Water Conversion Corporation (SWCC), Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, shares with OOSKAnews correspondent, Renee Martin-Nagle, his thoughts on renewable energy for desalination and the provision of water for all.

HE Dr Abdulrahman M Al-Ibrahim elaborates on how he combined desalination with renewable energy, SWCC’s strive towards operational excellence, environmental responsibility and more.

To start, would you mind speaking about the focus that is being placed by Saudi Arabia on solar energy for desalination?

Certainly. Recently the SWCC board of directors adopted a series of strategic goals, one of which is operational excellence. Part of that operational excellence is to enrich our portfolio of energies, including renewable energies like solar, photovoltaic, thermal, wind, geothermal, and other renewable energies. In the recent past we initiated construction of the first solar desalination plant in Al-Khafji that will produce 30,000 cubic meters per day of desalinated water and is operated by photovoltaic cells with an RO [reverse osmosis] desalination system. The King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) was the leader of this program, and we partnered with KACST to build, manage and maintain the plant throughout its life. We are investigating a more rigorous program to produce around 300,000 cubic metres per day with renewable energies. So, to summarize, renewable energy is not a luxury for us.  It is part of our strategy, and it is a means to enrich our portfolio of energy so that we will have the right mix for our operation.

SA Desal Plant

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has the most installed capacity for desalination in the world and currently it is planning to export its technical know-how regionally and internationally. Image: Power Insider Asia

My understanding is that the energy output of solar may not be adequate for some of the older desal technologies such as multi-stage flash.  Is that why you are using it for reverse osmosis?

I’m sure if we want to couple renewable energy with desalination, we will have to look at different technologies and pick the ones that are the best match, which could be Multi-Effect Distillation (MED), RO hybrid or Tri-hybrid. To start with, we selected RO for the Al-Khafji plant because as a rule of thumb, RO requires the least energy, but on the west coast we are investigating other technologies, such as Tri-hybrid. It’s partially an MED as well as an RO plant with Nano-Filtration (NF) and other means. We are devoting R&D to finding the right technologies to adapt to the renewable energies available locally.

All the projects I am currently overseeing are my favorite, but I’ll tell you about my dream. My dream is to have a highly reliable and very efficient desalination plant that becomes a model not just for our kingdom, Saudi Arabia, but a model worldwide.

Saudi Arabia has the most installed capacity for desalination in the world.  As you do research and gather technologies, does the Kingdom intend to become an exporter of technology as well as an importer?

Yes, we do. For the past 30 or 40 years, the ultimate goal of SWCC was to produce desalinated water to meet the needs of the Kingdom. Now we want to go beyond that goal and export know-how regionally as well as internationally. Our roadmap is to be able to develop know-how, intellectual property, prototypes and patents locally. In the past three or four years, we have come to own some patents, and we want to double that number in the next couple of years.

Would you give me an example of the latest technologies that you are exploring?

Sure. SWCC, together with the Water Re-use Promotion Center of Japan and Sasakura Company, conducted a joint research study to develop a fully integrated NF/SWRO/MED tri-hybrid system. This desalination system enabled us to reduce significantly the water production cost per unit, which we see as a break-through. Subsequently, a number of patents have been registered in Saudi Arabia, Japan and China.

How did you personally get involved in desalination?

I’m a graduate of the mechanical engineering program in Jeddah, in the area of thermal science, and at that time, we were required to study two courses in desalination and do two internships in industrial facilities. My second internship was in a small Multi-Stage Flash (MSF) plant in Jeddah, and, after doing a research project, it became my dream to combine desal with renewable energy. Luckily, in around 1986, I also worked with a very small solar desalination plant in Yanbu that used a technology called thermal freezing, where you freeze the seawater using an absorption system to reach almost zero degrees and then recover fresh water from the system. I went on to get a Master’s degree and a PhD in thermal engineering and renewable energies, and moved my expertise to energy efficiency. After 20 or 30 years, combining desal and renewable energy is becoming a reality instead of a pilot.

What changes have you seen in the past 20-25 years since you first got involved with desal? 

Almost two months ago we launched a new plant in Jeddah called Jeddah RO-3 that operates on reverse osmosis. This plant was built on a site where a thermal plant was in operation since the late 70s and produced 40,000 cubic metres. We demolished the old plant and built a new one on the same footprint that now produces 240,000 cubic metres. So in a 25- or 30-year span we were able to increase production by six times over.

The second thing is our local expertise here in Saudi Arabia. In the past, we had to hire multiple international companies to be able to operate our plants and produce the water. In those days, you would seldom find a Saudi person operating or maintaining the plant.  Now, Saudi locals perform 91 per cent of all our operations as engineers, technicians and managers who understand the technologies and who are able to diagnose and fix problems. We admire and respect all international expertise and we utilize it to the best that we can. At the same time, we feel that we are ready now to stretch our arms to regional and international markets and spread our expertise in terms of technologies, IP and manufacturing facilities. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has invested in desal, and we hope that it will add value to our GDP.

What will be the criteria for choosing desal technologies in the future?

Two factors will be the criteria for selecting technology — energy consumption and reliability. Membrane technology will be able to attain energy efficiency very well. However, we need to be able to assist it with more devices to make it more reliable. If the price of energy is important in your area, then you need to give it more weight. If reliability is more of an issue, then you give it more weight.

As much as we care about producing water, we also care about the environment, for multiple reasons. The primary factor is that we live in and share the same area, so we need to protect the environment next to us.  Secondly, our intake is affected by its surrounding area, and therefore we should not spoil the water next to the plant itself.

What is the problem with membrane reliability?

Membrane technology is very sensitive to the quality of water it receives. For example, if there is red tide, or an algae bloom, or any other material in the seawater, such as a high Silt Density Index (SDI), you would need to shut down the plant to preserve your membrane, or augment your plant with pre-treatment facilities to clean the water before you introduce it to the membrane. On the other hand, although thermal is very expensive and utilizes maybe two or three times as much energy as membrane technology, it may tolerate any water. Also, to be able to build membrane technology, you need to have a pilot plant for a year or two at the same location and study the water carefully to select the most appropriate pre-treatment process.

SWCC uses seawater for its operations.  What you do with the brine that is left over?

As much as we care about producing water, we also care about the environment, for multiple reasons. The primary factor is that we live in and share the same area, so we need to protect the environment next to us.  Secondly, our intake is affected by its surrounding area, and therefore we should not spoil the water next to the plant itself. We perform multiple procedures so as not to intervene with the eco-system next to the plant. We do this at SWCC and in any saline water industrial facility. For example, one standard procedure is to withdraw up to ten times the amount of water that you intend to desalinate, and discharge the extra with the brine to reduce the effect of high temperature or high salinity. We also measure the temperature of the intake and the discharged brine to make sure we protect the ecosystem next to the plant.

The newly commissioned plant in Jeddah – the Jeddah RO-3 – was built with multiple advanced measures to protect the environment –not only water intake and the brine but also energy efficiency within the building. We reduced the energy consumption through the cooling grade and the lighting system, and we are applying to multiple professional organizations to receive certificates of energy efficiency in the new building as well as in the plant.

There is a desalination plant that is constructed on a floating platform in Yanbu.  Would you describe it?

It’s one of the unique features that we have in Saudi Arabia. We have two barges, each one able to produce 25,000 cubic metres per day, that move on the west coast from Yanbu to Shuaibah to Shuqaiq or anywhere else to augment the production of a desal plant. So we move the barge from one location to the other according to the needs that may occur. The barges are stand-alone, with their own power supplied by liquid fuel.

I always hesitate to ask a parent which of his children is the favorite, but would you tell me if there are any projects that are your favorite?

All the projects I am currently overseeing are my favorite, but I’ll tell you about my dream. My dream is to have a highly reliable and very efficient desalination plant that becomes a model not just for our kingdom, Saudi Arabia, but a model worldwide. I want it to become a benchmark.

What final message would you like to leave with our readers?

The people of Saudi Arabia and the employees of the Saline Water Conversion Corporation are eager to produce water to serve the needs of anyone who lives on the planet earth. And we’re extremely happy to share our technologies and information with anyone who shares the same interest values. We believe, as the people of Saudi Arabia, that water is a commodity that should be made available to anyone who lives on the planet, regardless of his faith, regardless of his type, whether he’s human or animal or anyone else. The commercial aspect is an instrument to enable us to provide water that is necessary for life on earth. I totally believe that water is a value-related issue. It’s not a luxury item that needs to be looked at from a commercial business point of view. It’s something that has to be made available for everyone, so that anyone who lives on earth will have adequate quantity and quality of water.

Nanotechnology Design for micro-sized microbial Fuel Cells

By Michael Berger. Copyright © Nanowerk

QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8(Nanowerk Spotlight) Microbial fuel cells are a prime  example of environmental biotechnology that turns the treatment of organic  wastes into a source of electricity. Fuel cell technology, despite its recent  popularity as a possible solution for a fossil-fuel free future, is actually  quite old – the principle was discovered in 1838 and the first fuel cell was  developed in 1843.

The operating principle of a fuel cell is fairly  straightforward: it is an electrochemical energy conversion device that converts  the chemical energy from fuel (on the anode side) and oxidant (on the cathode  side) directly into electricity.   Today, there are many competing types of fuel cells, depending  on what kind of fuel and oxidant they use. For instance, a hydrogen fuel cell  uses hydrogen as fuel and oxygen as oxidant. In microbial fuel cells (MFCs), the  naturally occurring decomposing pathways of electrogenic bacteria are used to  both clean water and produce electricity by oxidizing biological compounds from  wastewater and other liquid wastes, even urine.

“Micro-sized microbial fuel cells are essentially miniature  energy harvesters requiring only the insertion of a liquid feed source  containing organic materials for the bacteria to feed,” Muhammad Mustafa Hussain, an Associate Professor of Electrical  Engineering at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in  Saudi Arabia, explains to Nanowerk.

“As a new technology, a full range of  microbial fuel cell conditions and materials must be rapidly tested to determine  the optimal parameters for maximum power production and future  commercialization. From that perspective, micro-sized MFCs offer a unique  miniature platform for rapid testing of MFC components.”   In new work, Hussain and his team have now demonstrated a  sustainable and practical design for a micro-sized microbial fuel cell.  Reporting their work in the July 30, 2013 online edition of ACS Nano (“Sustainable Design of High Performance Micro-sized  Microbial Fuel Cell with Carbon Nanotube Anode and Air Cathode”), the team  has successfully integrated multi-walled carbon nanotubes (MWCNT) into the anode  of a completely mobile micro-sized MFC using an air cathode.           microbial fuel cell design (a)  Schematic of the 75 µL micro-sized microbial fuel cell with MWCNT on silicon  chip anode and air cathode. Gold and Nickel on silicon chip anodes were also  tested and compared in the same set up; (b) Photograph of MWCNT on silicon chip  microbial fuel cell in plastic encasing with titanium wire contact visible as  well as the black air cathode compared to a US penny. (Reprinted with permission  from American Chemical Society)

With a focus on sustainability and low-cost usability, the  researchers designed their MFC as a one-chamber device by removing the proton  exchange membrane and replacing the cathode/chemical electron acceptor  combination with an air cathode and ambient oxygen electron acceptor, thus  making the entire device small enough for system-on-chip functionality.   “We have used oxygen instead of hazardous chemical ferricyanide,  which eliminates otherwise required continuous flow of liquid chemicals,” says  Justine Mink, a PhD student in Hussain’s Integrated Nanotechnology Laboratory, and the paper’s first  author. “This is the first time oxygen has been used in micro-sized MFC.

By  comparing the same air cathode set up with the most commonly used but expensive  gold anode as well as an inexpensive metal nickel anode we were able to confirm  that air cathodes in microsized MFCs are feasible even without a membrane and  that the devices are durable and long-lasting.”   She points out that, during their experiments where they tested  their MFCs for over 15 days, the used MWCNT anode outperformed the others in  current and power production most importantly due to its increased surface area.

microbial fuel cell design

Maximum current densities produced by the devices (a) are about 800%  higher for the MWCNT anode compared to the gold and more than 2200% higher  compared to the nickel anode. Maximum power densities (4b) indicate that the  MWCNT anode produced more than 600% the power of the gold anode and 1900% the  power of the nickel anode. Their peak power values over a 10 day period (4c)  show that all devices were able to have reproducible and stable power but not at  the values of their peak power achieved indicating further need for optimization  within the micro-size MFC. (Reprinted with permission from American Chemical  Society)  

Having system-on-chip functionality on their mind, Hussain’s  group used CMOS compatible processes to fabricate their anodes with pure carbon  nanotubes on silicon. The material selection for the cathode, like that of the  anode, requires a highly conductive material and is most typically carbon. In  this case, the team used a specially designed and nano-engineered carbon cloth  air cathode. This is the first time an air cathode has been integrated directly  onto a silicon based MFC chip.

Applications of this new microbial fuel cell design will be  found in two areas: as rapid testing tools for MFC components for macroscale  designs; and as onboard power source for lab-on-chip and point-of-care  diagnostic devices.                       

By Michael Berger. Copyright © Nanowerk

Read more:

King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) Investigates Online Monitoring of Printed Electronics by SD – OCT

QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8 Printing technology is now being utilized to fabricate electronics and other active and passive devices and structures. Rotary printing techniques such as rotogravure, rotary screen, and flexography have been advantageous due to their ability to integrate with other rotary techniques to form what we refer to as Roll-to-Roll (R2R) process.


In a R2R process, a roll of the base material (referred to as substrate) is unwined, functional materials printed on top of the substrate to form the needed structures or device, dried and rewined back to roll, or cut into individual devices. Most of current characterization of printed devices is done off line and requires the interruption of the process, which is not feasible when scaling up to a manufacturing level.

There are few cameras and microscope-based methods capable of providing spatial information about printed structures in a R2R process, even at relatively high speeds. However, such techniques do not provide any information in relation to depth, especially when the imaged structure is buried. Industry requires integrated tools that can monitor online the fabricated device quality and structure.

It is demonstrated, in this case study, the use of Spectral-Domain OCT to monitor structural properties of moving printed devices, thus presenting a simple example simulating a R2R process. An interdigitated electrode structure of screen printed silver nanoparticles on a flexible PET substrate was used as a sample. Electrodes were first measured by an optical profilometer to get a reference for online OCT measurements.

R2R process was simulated by using a DC-servo motor-based translation stage with speeds from 0 to 1.50 m/min, with 0.15 m/min steps to demonstrate the dynamic imaging capability of OCT. The pattern was clearly recognizable at all speeds. Dimensions were resolved accurately up to speed of 1.05 m/min, after which the pixel pitch becomes too large in machine direction compared to the measured feature size, causing inaccurate measurement. Comparison between OCT and optical profilometer data was performed by overlaying OCT image by profilometer image with varying opacity from 0% to 100% to illustrate the correlation of data sets. The pattern measured by OCT matches well with the optical profilometer data.
Our vision is to integrate OCT as part of the R2R process to monitor structural parameters, evaluate the printing quality and provide feedback for process control. In a real R2R process imaging we have to deal with vibrations of the printer and web itself which have to be minimized either by supporting the web or using signal post-processing. Current OCT tools are limited to relatively slow R2R processes.

We can overcome this by incorporating higher acquisition rate camera, faster beam scanning, as well as faster ability to process and save large amount of data. Requirements for resolution are also higher than in medical field. Submicron resolution is required and it’s necessary to utilize high power ultra-broadband light source like supercontinuum source. Our team is actively developing ultrahigh resolution and fast OCT tools for industrial manufacturing and applications and processes, in particular, for imaging in R2R of printed electronics and photonics.
For more information see recent Article. Courtesy of Erkki Alarousu from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.

Quantum dots for superior solar cells


Researchers at the University of Toronto in Canada and KAUST in Saudi Arabia have made a solar cell out of colloidal quantum dot (CQD) films that has a record-breaking efficiency of 7%. This is almost 40% more efficient than the best previous devices based on CQDs.

CQDs are semiconductor particles only a few nanometres in size. They can be synthesized in solution, which means that films of the particles can be deposited quickly and without fuss on a wide range of flexible or rigid substrates – just like paint or ink can.

QD Solar Chip

CQD photovoltaics

CQDs could be used as the light-absorbing component in cheap, highly efficient inorganic solar cells. In a solar cell, high-energy photons hitting the photovoltaic material can produce excited electrons and holes (charge carriers) that have energies at least equal to or greater than the band gaps of the material. Another advantage of using CQDs as the photovoltaic material is that they absorb light over a wide spectrum of wavelengths thanks to the fact that the band gap can be tuned over a large energy range by simply changing the size of the nanoparticles.

There is a snag, however; the high surface area to volume ratio of nanoparticles results in bare surfaces that can became “traps” in which electrons invariably get stuck. This means that electrons and holes have time to recombine instead of producing useful current, something that inevitably reduces the efficiency of devices made from CQD films.

Surface passivation

A team led by Edward Sargent at Toronto may now have come up with a solution to this annoying problem. The researchers have succeeded in passivating the surface of CQD films by completely covering all exposed surfaces using a chlorine solution that they added to the quantum-dot solution immediately after it was synthesized. “We employed chlorine atoms because they are small enough to penetrate all of the nooks and crannies previously responsible for the poor surface quality of the CQD films,” explained Sargent.

QD Solar Chip 2

In the lab

The team then spin cast the CQD solution onto a glass substrate that was covered with a transparent conductor. Next, an organic linker was used to bind the quantum dots together. This final step in the process results in a very dense film of nanoparticles that absorbs a much larger amount of sunlight.

Reducing traps

“Our hybrid passivation scheme employs chlorine atoms to reduce the number of traps for electrons associated with poor CQD film surface quality while simultaneously ensuring that the films are dense and highly absorbing thanks to the organic linkers,” Sargent told

Electronic spectroscopy measurements confirmed that the films hardly contained any electron traps at all, he adds. Synchrotron X-ray scattering measurements at sub-nanometre resolution performed by the scientists at KAUST corroborated the fact that the films were highly dense and contained very closely packed nanoparticles.

Low-cost photovoltaics on the horizon

“Most solar cells on the market today are made out of heavy crystalline materials,” explained Sargent, “but our work shows that light and versatile materials like CQDs could potentially become cost-competitive with these traditional technologies. Our results also pave the way for low-cost photovoltaics that could be fabricated on flexible substrates, for example, using roll-to-roll manufacturing (in the same way that newspapers are printed in mass quantities).”

The team is now looking at further reducing electron traps in CQD films for even higher efficiency. “It turns out that there are many organic and inorganic materials out there that might well be used in such hybrid passivation schemes,” added Sargent, “ so finding out how to reduce electron traps to a minimum would be good.”

The researchers say that they are also interested in using layers of different-sized quantum dots to make a multi-junction solar cell that could absorb over an even broader range of light wavelengths.

The current work is detailed in Nature Nanotechnology.


Saudi Money Shaping U.S. Research

Susan Schmidt | February 11, 2013

qdots-imagescakxsy1k-8.jpgSaudi Arabia’s oil reserves are expected to run dry in fifty years. This prospect has encouraged the Saudis to go shopping for cutting-edge science that can secure the kingdom’s future—at elite American research universities.


King Abdullah and Saudi Aramco are spending tens of billions on technology research to make the oil last longer and develop other energy resources that future Saudi generations can someday export.


King Abdullah University of Science and Technology opened its doors in 2009 and already has lavished more than $200 million on top U.S. university scientists. Stanford, Cornell, Texas A&M, UC Berkeley, CalTech, Georgia Tech—all are awash in new millions of Saudi cash for research directed at advancing solutions for Saudi energy and water needs. The new university, known as KAUST, has similar partnerships with scientists at Peking University and Oxford.

Many American universities and their scientists, lured by research grants of as much as $25 million, have jumped at the chance to partner with KAUST. Some of those scientists do research at their universities here and spend a small part of their time in Saudi Arabia creating “mirror” labs.

The arrangement with KAUST raises novel and largely unaddressed issues for American universities. With the United States determined to become energy self-sufficient, what are the ramifications of having scientists at top university labs—many of them recipients of U.S. government research dollars—devoting their efforts to energy pursuits selected by Saudi Arabia?

KAUST funding for U.S. scientists is geared to helping the Saudis cut their own heavy oil use at home to lengthen the life of their much more lucrative exports. It’s aimed at getting more oil per well with new technology, finding new reserves and developing new methods of carbon capture for continued use of fossil fuels. American scientists are also working to develop solar technology, including solar panels that can survive sandstorms and power desalinization of the Red Sea for water and electricity.

Among the areas KAUST is not funding is research on biofuels—which compete with oil—except for work on Red Sea algae.

KAUST’s mission statement lays out a plan to rapidly become a top international institution that “will play a crucial role in the development of Saudi Arabia and the world.” KAUST’s goal is not only to find new energy sources, but to create a Silicon Valley-like commercial hub of jobs and innovation. King Abdullah provided a whopping $20 billion endowment to launch the graduate-level research institution, and named the Saudi oil minister chairman of the board of trustees. Aramco built the campus, funds current operating costs and provided administrative leadership.

“It’s an important research lab for Aramco with a university façade,” said Alyn Rockwood, one of several scientists who say they want KAUST to succeed but believe a corporate ethos is stifling academic autonomy.

Some have bridled over changes that require them to get administrative approval in spending their research funds. KAUST officials declined interview requests, but in a Science magazine story late last year that cited some of those complaints, the former Aramco executive who runs KAUST, Nadhmi al-Nasr, acknowledged that he comes from a “top-down” corporate culture and is adjusting to academia.

Scientific research at universities is a key driver of debate over how to meet global energy needs. Often of late, it is the research itself that gets debated. Dueling studies about the environmental impact of biofuels and the safety of hydraulic fracking for natural gas has spurred charges and countercharges about the role of commercial interests biasing the science, for example.

The impact of published studies is not lost on the leaders at KAUST. In fact, the top of its mission statement sets out very specific goals for getting its research published in “prestigious professional journals.” By that measure, KAUST-funded scientists have been highly successful, with stacks of prestigious journal publications and patents to their credit.

One of them is William J. Koros, a Georgia Tech professor who was awarded a $10 million research grant for his work there on hydrocarbons. “They are very generous to home universities,” he said. Koros is working on technology that would help capture impurities from natural gas. “The Middle East is loaded with natural gas. They viewed this as a world problem that intersected with their interests,” he said.

Experts in issues related to academic research funding say KAUST’s relationship with U.S. scientists is unusual, posing pitfalls as well as opportunities.

“I don’t think there is a framework for dealing with foreign governments or corporations who invest in American universities to compete,” Tufts professor Sheldon Krimsky, who has studied conflicts of interest in academic research. Where American researchers get money does not mean the science produced will be anything less than honest. But, he said, scientific inquiry is shaped by the scope of the questions asked.

James Luyten, former director of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, sees the creation of a specific research agenda as a problem at KAUST. KAUST awarded Woods Hole $25 million and Luyten spent three years helping set up their Red Sea research center.

“They are using their money to limit and constrain where people put their energy as research scientists,” said Luyten, something that corporate sponsors often try to achieve by carefully choosing which science to fund and which to ignore.

Luyten said he was under “enormous pressure” to devote resources to algae biofuels research, for example, but was discouraged from research on the effect of carbon emissions on Red Sea coral. “A group of us wanted to hold a symposium on climate change,” he said, but the university president rejected the idea. “We were told that was not in the interest of Saudi Arabia,” he said.

KAUST reserves the right to review studies before publication, something that is not generally done by U.S. universities, though scientists and administrators who’ve worked at KAUST say so far it has been pro forma.

American universities, faced with a shrinking pool of research dollars at home, have welcomed the Saudi partnership as a way to fund important science, including in the area of carbon capture, an issue that has global implications. Creating jobs and educating the Saudi populace is seen as vital to making theirs a stable society, something that may benefit the rest of the world, though aiding a repressive regime has drawn objections from faculty on a few U.S. campuses. To bring in foreign scientists, the Saudi king has made KAUST an oasis of modernity, where male and female students are allowed to mix.

Several prominent scientists said KAUST has the resources to have a big impact on scientific research.

“I don’t think there is any university in the world that has as advanced equipment as they have,” said Stanford solar cell researcher Mike McGeehee. He spent a month helping set up a lab at KAUST and leads Stanford’s Center for Advanced Molecular Photovoltaics, created with a $25 million KAUST grant.

Science at KAUST is directed more toward commercial application. “Things are different there. There’s a tighter connection to industry,’’ said McGeehee.

“You can’t do certain kinds of research at US universities—you can’t have industry come in and do experiments because federal dollars are paying for it, and you can’t give one company an advantage over another. But there, the king says I’m paying for it, I want [commercial] spin-offs.”

American university relationships with corporate research sponsors are a hotly debated topic, notably because of controversy over biased drug studies paid for by pharmaceutical companies. Many universities encourage professors to find corporate as well as government funders, but they keep those contractual arrangements confidential, including terms for industry access to research as well as intellectual-property arrangements. The American Association of University Professors is completing a major study on how universities should structure industry relationships.

To date, in fact, KAUST’s website has publicized its grants to a greater degree than the U.S. universities and scientists receiving them. Universities here have reported very few of the KAUST grants and contracts to the U.S. Department of Education, which maintains a public database of foreign funds to American colleges.

AAUP president Cary Nelson, who is working on the report on corporate-sponsored research, said he was not previously aware of the KAUST grants. “What you are looking at is the touchiest area. All funded research should be reviewed by faculty senate or faculty committee. It should be transparent,” he said.

Cornell University campus publications contain more information of its work with KAUST than is available from other universities, but even there administrators are circumspect about terms of Cornell’s $28 million in KAUST grants and contracts.

“It’s not public,” said Celia Szczepura, administrator of the KAUST-Cornell Center for Energy and Sustainability. As for the work Cornell does that may end up aiding the Saudi oil industry, she said: “KAUST isn’t an industry sponsor—it’s a university. What they share with Aramco and what they don’t, you’d have to ask KAUST.”

But separating the Saudi king’s new university from the kingdom’s oil industry is all but impossible. For now, Saudi Arabia’s petroleum interests have a key role in choosing what energy research is pursued by some of America’s leading scientists.

Susan Schmidt is a longtime Washington journalist and a visiting fellow with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.

Solar Energy for Saudi Just makes $ense

Wed Feb 27, 2013 6:54am EST By Gerard Wynn

QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8LONDON Feb 27 (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has the world’s second best solar resource after Chile’s Atacama Desert, making investment in solar a no-brainer as an alternative to burning its most precious resource.

The Kingdom has for several years been talking up its plans to become a major player in solar power.

Four years ago a senior oil ministry official told Reuters: “We can export solar power to our neighbours on a very large scale and that is our strategic objective to diversify our economy. It will be huge.”

Since then the country has installed about 10 megawatts, a tiny fraction of cloudy England.

But the country has now detailed plans for installed renewable power capacity in 2020 and 2032 which could put the country among the world’s top five solar power producers.

The competitiveness of solar photovoltaic (PV) power depends on the installed cost (including the price of solar modules and installation costs); local solar irradiation; and the cost of the alternative, as illustrated by the retail power price plus subsidies.

NASA solar irradiation data show that parts of Saudi Arabia are second only to the world’s driest desert, in Chile.

Solar module demand would be boosted by a similar shift in other sunny, emerging economies with subsidised fossil fuel power.


Saudi Arabia is dependent on electricity both for energy and water through desalination.

The main source of electricity is burning crude oil and increasingly, natural gas.

The country burned some 192.8 million barrels of crude to generate 129 million megawatt hours (MWh) of power in 2010, Saudi and International Energy Agency data show.

Saudi power generators pay about $4 per barrel for their oil, industry data show.

That works out at a running cost of $0.006 per kilowatt hours (kWh) in 2010, excluding all other capital, fixed and operating costs.

But accounting for the opportunity cost of exporting crude oil at international prices of $113 per barrel raises the economic cost of oil-fired power generation to $0.13 per kWh, ignoring all non-fuel costs.

A simplified solar cost calculator developed by the U.S. Department of Energy‘s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates the cost of solar power at $0.07 per kWh under Saudi conditions.

That assumes a capacity factor of 33 percent as can be expected in sunnier locations in southern Saudi Arabia and a full capital cost of $1.5 per watt, a conservative estimate for utility-scale installations.

That is before taking into account the annual degradation of solar modules, and losses as result of dust, sand and high temperatures, none of which are deal-breakers.

The NREL calculator also appears to ignore DC to AC conversion losses which can cut power output by about 25 percent compared with nameplate DC capacity.



NREL has helped develop an open access database measuring solar irradiance, with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy and sourced from NASA.

It is part of a Solar and Wind Energy Resource Assessment (SWERA) initiative started in 2001 with U.N. funding to advance the large-scale use of renewable energy technologies.

The data is measured at one-degree resolution globally averaged from 1983-2005 and calculated according to latitude and local weather.

Solar irradiance is calculated according to various formats, for example a flat surface laid horizontal to the Earth (“Global Horizontal Irradiance”), or tilted due south at the angle of local latitude (“Solar Tilt”), or tilted southwards and also tracking the sun (“Direct Normal Irradiance”, or DNI).

The data reinforce how Germany is not the most obvious place for the world’s leading solar market.

The sunniest region of southern Germany has a DNI of 3.39 kWh per square metre per day. (See Chart 1)

Saudi Arabia’s capital, Riyadh, has a DNI of 6.68 kWh, and the vast empty land south of the city is as sunny as 7.99 kWh.

The country’s Red Sea coastline north of the second biggest city Jeddah rises as high as 8.60 kWh.

That appears to be the second sunniest place on Earth, only over-shadowed by Chile’s Atacama desert which has a DNI of up to 9.77 kWh per square metre per day.



Local solar radiation determines how much power a given solar module will generate.

Capacity factor is a term which compares the electricity that a solar module actually generates compared with the theoretical maximum if it were running at full capacity all the time.

The standard test conditions (STC) for assigning the nameplate capacity of solar panels assume irradiance of 1,000 watts per square metre, or 24 kWh per square metre over 24 hours, at an ambient temperature of 25 degrees Celsius.

Such assumptions can be applied to actual field conditions recorded by the NASA data to calculate a capacity factor.

A solar panel located south of Riyadh, for example, would have a capacity factor of about 33 percent, given a local solar irradiance of 8 kWh, compared with test conditions of 24 kWh per day.


There are further real-world losses associated with solar power.

In Saudi Arabia, high temperatures are relevant, where power output falls by about 0.5 percent per degree Celsius above 25 degrees, according to NREL assumptions, probably not enough to undermine its competitiveness.

Other emerging economies have rapidly growing power demand and subsidised fossil fuel consumption including China and India.

The NASA data show that both these countries have locations where solar irradiation rivals Riyadh.

Unsubsidised solar power can replace fossil fuels at scale in such locations over the next decade at zero or negative cost, with implications both for solar module and fossil fuel demand.

To See NREL Solar Chart, Go Here:,41.36,9.56,51.09

Saudi Arabia launches massive solar power procurement program

QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8Saudi Arabia launches massive solar power procurement program



(Nanowerk News) Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah City for  Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE) has issued its long-awaited White Paper  paving the way towards the deployment of 54 gigawatts of solar power projects by  2032 worth over $60 billion. K.A.CARE has announced the launch of its Renewable Energy  Competitive Procurement Portal and released a White Paper outlining how this vast procurement  process will unfold.

KSA RE Graph
Long-term renewable energy targets for Saudi Arabia. (Source: K.A.CARE)

This announcement marks the launch of a registration process for  interested companies to submit feedback and obtain important information in  connection with the Renewable Energy Program. Crucially, it paves the way  towards the launch of the introductory procurement round.
The introductory procurement round will consist of five to seven  projects with a combined capacity of up to 800 megawatts. The introductory round  is part of Saudi Arabia’s a colossal program to procure 41,000 gigawatts of  solar power facilities by 2032.
“This is a very important milestone, both for Saudi Arabia and  the Middle East solar market as a whole. ESIA will continue to work closely with  KA-CARE to make sure this program becomes a resounding success and a benchmark  for excellence.” said Vahid Fotuhi, President of ESIA.
Source: Emirates Solar Industry Association  (ESIA)

Read more:

China, India Emerge as Most Promising High-Growth Markets for Solar

QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8Japan, U.K., France, and South Korea also offer attractive landscape and large addressable markets, according to Lux Research‘s analysis of policy and market drivers


BOSTON, Feb 12, 2013 (BUSINESS WIRE) — Global policy changes and the crystalline silicon module price crash have brought the solar industry to a pivotal point from which it must transform and thrive in a cost-conscious environment, targeting high-growth markets such as China and India, says Lux Research.

“While some historically strong demand markets will continue to pay dividends, the real winners going forward will need to make a few well-informed bets,” said Matt Feinstein, Lux Research Analyst and the lead author of the report titled, “Past is Prologue: Market Selection Strategy in a New Solar Policy Environment.”

“Successful players will anchor business in key developed regions like the U.S., Europe, Japan, and China, and place informed bets in markets like South/Central America, the Middle East, and Africa, through new offices or partnerships,” he added.

Lux Research analyzed the risk vs. reward, based on policy and market factors, for both distributed and utility-scale solar in countries around the world. Among their findings:

— Europe shines for distributed generation. Established markets remain fruitful for distributed generation despite downturns in demand and reduced feed-in tariffs. Markets such as Germany and Italy have demonstrated a strong preference for rooftop systems and have strong existing channels to market.

— Utility-scale generation soars in emerging markets. High-growth markets come with high risks as well, but emerging economies of India, China, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia are set to become solar powers. Competition is booming in the last three in particular, and each will exceed installation targets.

— Fortune favors the bold. In solar, firms that take calculated risks and expand quickly into foreign markets will boost success, as First Solar and many Chinese module manufacturers have shown. As the Chinese industry consolidates, opportunities exist for other global players.

The report, titled “Past is Prologue: Market Selection Strategy in a New Solar Policy Environment,” is part of the Lux Research Solar Systems Intelligence service.

About Lux Research

Lux Research provides strategic advice and ongoing intelligence for emerging technologies. Leaders in business, finance and government rely on us to help them make informed strategic decisions. Through our unique research approach focused on primary research and our extensive global network, we deliver insight, connections and competitive advantage to our clients. Visit for more information.

SOURCE: Lux Research

Major Breakthroughs in Solar Technology for 2013

QDOTS imagesCAKXSY1K 8Despite a tough market leading to widespread cost reductions and negative returns for many operators in the photovoltaic sector in 2012, solar technology nonetheless took major strides and achieved a number of landmark breakthroughs in key research areas.


In materials research, the North Carolina State University (NCSU) in Raleigh, North Carolina used cutting-edge nanotechnology to develop slimmer and more affordable solar cells.

The cells are comprised of sandwiched nanostructures which not only cut down on material usage and expenditures but also improve solar absorption and raise conversion efficiency.

As an added bonus, the manufacturing processes for the new technology are compatible with techniques currently employed throughout the industry for the production of thin-film solar cells.

In terms of government-funded initiatives, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), a research arm of the US Department of Energy, teamed up with Natcore Technology to create the most absorbent solar cell ever devised, capable of capturing some 99.7 per cent of available sunlight.

 The new technology resulting from this collaborative effort between the government and private sectors could reduce the cost of solar cells by around two to three per cent while lifting energy output by up to 10 per cent. The black silicon used for the cells is also far cheaper than standard anti-reflection technologies.
nanotechnology-solar-cells-1A key area of research for 2012 was improved storage techniques for renewable energies, with scientists from Houston’s Rice University in Texas developing a remarkable “paintable” battery which can be applied to any tractable surface. The rechargeable battery opens a new vista of possibilities for the convenient storage of solar energy.

In the field of flexible thin-film cells, a joint undertaking between scientists from Canada and Saudi Arabia smashed the world record for solar efficiency, surpassing the ousted place holder by a staggering 37 per cent. The colloidal quantum dot (CQD) thin-film solar cell, developed by scientists from Canada’s University of Toronto and the King Abdullah University of Science & Technology in Saudi Arabia, achieved a world-record efficiency level of seven per cent via the application of a “hybrid passivation scheme.”

The new technology could potentially be applied to the cheap, mass manufacture of thin-film solar cells by using flexible substrates to “print” the devices in a process akin to that traditionally employed for the production of newspapers.paintable-battery-rice-university