How a new quantum sensor could improve cancer treatment
The development of medical imaging and monitoring methods has profoundly impacted the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. These non-invasive techniques allow health care practitioners to look for cancer in the body and determine if treatment is working.
But current techniques have limitations; namely, tumours need to be a specific size to be visible. Being able to detect cancer cells, even before there are enough to form a tumour, is a challenge that researchers around the world are looking to solve.
The solution may lie in nanotechnology
Researchers at the University of Waterloo’s Institute for Quantum Computing (IQC) have developed a quantum sensor that is promising to outperform existing technologies in monitoring the success of cancer treatments.
Artist’s rendering of the interaction of incident single photon pulses and a tapered semiconductor nanowire array photodetector.
“A sensor needs to be very efficient at detecting light,” explains principal investigator Michael Reimer, an IQC faculty member and professor in the Faculty of Engineering. “What’s unique about our sensor is that the light can be absorbed all the way, from UV to infrared. No commercially available device exists that can do that now.”
Current sensors reflect some of the light, and depending on the material, this reflection can add up to 30 percent of the light not being absorbed.
This next-generation quantum sensor designed in Reimer’s lab is very efficient and can detect light at the fundamental limit — a single photon — and refresh for the next one within nanoseconds. Researchers created an array of tapered nanowires that turn incoming photons into electric current that can be amplified and detected.
When applied to dose monitoring in cancer treatment, this enhanced ability to detect every photon means that a health practitioner could monitor the dose being given with incredible precision — ensuring enough is administered to kill the cancer cells, but not too much that it also kills healthy cells.
Moving quantum technology beyond the lab
Reimer published his findings in Nature Nanotechnology in March and is now working on a prototype to begin testing outside of his lab. Reimer’s goal is to commercialize the sensor in the next three to five years.
“I enjoy the fundamental research, but I’m also interested in bringing my research out of the lab and into the real world and making an impact to society,” says Reimer.
He is no stranger to bringing quantum technology to the marketplace. While completing his post doctorate at the Delft University of Technology in The Netherlands, Reimer was an integral part of the startup, Single Quantum, developing highly efficient single-photon detectors based on superconducting nanowires.
Reimer’s latest sensor has a wide range of applications beyond dose monitoring for cancer treatments. The technology also has the ability to significantly improve high-speed imaging from space and long-range, high-resolution 3D images.
“A broad range of industries and research fields will benefit from a quantum sensor with these capabilities,” said Reimer. “It impacts quantum communication to quantum lidar to biological applications. Anywhere you have photon-starved situations, you would want an efficient sensor.”
He is exploring all industries and opportunities to put this technology to use.
Breakthroughs come in unexpected places
After earning his undergraduate degree in physics at the University of Waterloo, Reimer moved to Germany to play professional hockey. While taking graduate courses at the Technical University of Munich, he met a professor of nanotechnology who sparked his interest in the field.
“I played hockey and science was my hobby,” says Reimer. “Science is still my hobby, and it’s amazing that it is now my job.” Reimer went on to complete his PhD at the University of Ottawa/National Research Council of Canada, and turned his attention to quantum light sources. Reimer is an internationally renowned expert in quantum light sources and sensors. The idea for the quantum sensor came from his initial research in quantum light sources.
“To get the light out from the quantum light source, we had to come up with a way that you don’t have reflections, so we made this tapered shape. We realized that if we can get the light out that way we could also do the reverse — that’s where the idea for the sensor came from.”
Reimer will be at the Waterloo Innovation Summit on October 1, to present his latest breakthrough and its potential impact on the health care sector. And while he works to bring the sensor to market, Reimer’s lab continues to push the boundaries of quantum photonics.
From discovering the path to perfect photon entanglement to developing novel solid-state quantum devices, Reimer’s research is advancing technologies that could disrupt a multitude of industries and research fields.
Researchers at the University of Waterloo have developed a way to better harness the volume of energy collected by solar panels.
In a new study, the researchers developed an algorithm that increases the efficiency of the solar photovoltaic (PV) system and reduces the volume of power currently being wasted due to a lack of effective controls.
“We’ve developed an algorithm to further boost the power extracted from an existing solar panel,” said Milad Farsi, a PhD candidate in Waterloo’s Department of Applied Mathematics. “Hardware in every solar panel has some nominal efficiency, but there should be some appropriate controller that can get maximum power out of solar panels.
“We do not change the hardware or require additional circuits in the solar PV system. What we developed is a better approach to controlling the hardware that already exists.”
The new algorithm enables controllers to better deal with fluctuations around the maximum power point of a solar PV system, which have historically led to the wasting of potential energy collected by panels.
“Based on the simulations, for a small home-use solar array including 12 modules of 335W, up to 138.9 kWh/year can be saved,” said Farsi, who undertook the study with his supervisor, Professor Jun Liu of Waterloo’s Department of Applied Mathematics. “The savings may not seem significant for a small home-use solar system but could make a substantial difference in larger-scale ones, such as a solar farm or in an area including hundreds of thousands of local solar panels connected to the power grid.
“Taking Canada’s largest PV plant, for example, the Sarnia Photovoltaic Power Plant, if this technique is used, the savings could amount to 960,000 kWh/year, which is enough to power hundreds of households. If the saved energy were to be generated by a coal-fired plant, it would require emission of 312 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere.”
Milad further pointed out that the savings could be even more substantial under a fast-changing ambient environment, such as Canadian weather conditions, or when the power loss in the converters due to the undesired chattering effects seen in other conventional control methods is taken into account.
The study, Nonlinear Optimal Feedback Control and Stability Analysis of Solar Photovoltaic Systems, authored by Waterloo’s Faculty of Mathematics researchers Farsi and Liu, was recently published in the journal IEEE Transactions on Control Systems Technology.
Radar that can spot stealth aircraft and other quantum innovations could give their militaries a strategic edge
In the 1970s, at the height of the Cold War, American military planners began to worry about the threat to US warplanes posed by new, radar-guided missile defenses in the USSR and other nations. In response, engineers at places like US defense giant Lockheed Martin’s famous “Skunk Works” stepped up work on stealth technology that could shield aircraft from the prying eyes of enemy radar.
The innovations that resulted include unusual shapes that deflect radar waves—like the US B-2 bomber’s “flying wing” design (above)—as well as carbon-based materials and novel paints. Stealth technology isn’t yet a Harry Potter–like invisibility cloak: even today’s most advanced warplanes still reflect some radar waves. But these signals are so small and faint they get lost in background noise, allowing the aircraft to pass unnoticed.
China and Russia have since gotten stealth aircraft of their own, but America’s are still better. They have given the US the advantage in launching surprise attacks in campaigns like the war in Iraq that began in 2003.
This advantage is now under threat. In November 2018, China Electronics Technology Group Corporation (CETC), China’s biggest defense electronics company, unveiled a prototype radar that it claims can detect stealth aircraft in flight. The radar uses some of the exotic phenomena of quantum physics to help reveal planes’ locations.
It’s just one of several quantum-inspired technologies that could change the face of warfare. As well as unstealthing aircraft, they could bolster the security of battlefield communications and affect the ability of submarines to navigate the oceans undetected. The pursuit of these technologies is triggering a new arms race between the US and China, which sees the emerging quantum era as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to gain the edge over its rival in military tech.
How quickly quantum advances will influence military power will depend on the work of researchers like Jonathan Baugh. A professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Baugh is working on a device that’s part of a bigger project to develop quantum radar. Its intended users: stations in the Arctic run by the North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD, a joint US-Canadian organization.
Baugh’s machine generates pairs of photons that are “entangled”—a phenomenon that means the particles of light share a single quantum state. A change in one photon immediately influences the state of the other, even if they are separated by vast distances.
Quantum radar operates by taking one photon from every pair generated and firing it out in a microwave beam. The other photon from each pair is held back inside the radar system.
Only a few of the photons sent out will be reflected back if they hit a stealth aircraft. A conventional radar wouldn’t be able to distinguish these returning photons from the mass of other incoming ones created by natural phenomena—or by radar-jamming devices. But a quantum radar can check for evidence that incoming photons are entangled with the ones held back. Any that are must have originated at the radar station. This enables it to detect even the faintest of return signals in a mass of background noise.
Baugh cautions that there are still big engineering challenges. These include developing highly reliable streams of entangled photons and building extremely sensitive detectors. It’s hard to know if CETC, which already claimed in 2016 that its radar could detect objects up to 100 kilometers (62 miles) away, has solved these challenges; it’s keeping the technical details of its prototype a secret.
Seth Lloyd, an MIT professor who developed the theory underpinning quantum radar, says that in the absence of hard evidence, he’s skeptical of the Chinese company’s claims. But, he adds, the potential of quantum radar isn’t in doubt. When a fully functioning device is finally deployed, it will mark the beginning of the end of the stealth era.
A study of China’s quantum strategy published in September 2018 by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS), a US think tank, noted that the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is recruiting quantum specialists, and that big defense companies like China Shipbuilding Industry Corporation (CSIC) are setting up joint quantum labs at universities. Working out exactly which projects have a military element to them is hard, though. “There’s a degree of opacity and ambiguity here, and some of that may be deliberate,” says Elsa Kania, a coauthor of the CNAS study.
China’s efforts are ramping up just as fears are growing that the US military is losing its competitive edge. A commission tasked by Congress to review the Trump administration’s defense strategy issued a report in November 2018 warning that the US margin of superiority “is profoundly diminished in key areas” and called for more investment in new battlefield technologies.
One of those technologies is likely to be quantum communication networks. Chinese researchers have already built a satellite that can send quantum-encrypted messages between distant locations, as well as a terrestrial network that stretches between Beijing and Shanghai. Both projects were developed by scientific researchers, but the know-how and infrastructure could easily be adapted for military use.
The networks rely on an approach known as quantum key distribution (QKD). Messages are encoded in the form of classical bits, and the cryptographic keys needed to decode them are sent as quantum bits, or qubits. These qubits are typically photons that can travel easily across fiber-optic networks or through the atmosphere. If an enemy tries to intercept and read the qubits, this immediately destroys their delicate quantum state, wiping out the information they carry and leaving a telltale sign of an intrusion.
QKD technology isn’t totally secure yet. Long ground networks require way stations similar to the repeaters that boost signals along an ordinary data cable. At these stations, the keys are decoded into classical form before being re-encoded in a quantum form and sent to the next station. While the keys are in classical form, an enemy could hack in and copy them undetected.
To overcome this issue, a team of researchers at the US Army Research Laboratory in Adelphi, Maryland, is working on an approach called quantum teleportation. This involves using entanglement to transfer data between a qubit held by a sender and another held by a receiver, using what amounts to a kind of virtual, one-time-only quantum data cable. (There’s a more detailed description here.)
Michael Brodsky, one of the researchers, says he and his colleagues have been working on a number of technical challenges, including finding ways to ensure that the qubits’ delicate quantum state isn’t disrupted during transmission through fiber-optic networks. The technology is still confined to a lab, but the team says it’s now robust enough to be tested outside. “The racks can be put on trucks, and the trucks can be moved to the field,” explains Brodsky.
It may not be long before China is testing its own quantum teleportation system. Researchers are already building the fiber-optic network for one that will stretch from the city of Zhuhai, near Macau, to some islands in Hong Kong.
Researchers are also exploring using quantum approaches to deliver more accurate and foolproof navigation tools to the military. US aircraft and naval vessels already rely on precise atomic clocks to help keep track of where they are. But they also count on signals from the Global Positioning System (GPS), a network of satellites orbiting Earth. This poses a risk because an enemy could falsify, or “spoof,” GPS signals—or jam them altogether.
Lockheed Martin thinks American sailors could use a quantum compass based on microscopic synthetic diamonds with atomic flaws known as nitrogen-vacancy centers, or NV centers. These quantum defects in the diamond lattice can be harnessed to form an extremely accurate magnetometer. Shining a laser on diamonds with NV centers makes them emit light at an intensity that varies according to the surrounding magnetic field.
Ned Allen, Lockheed’s chief scientist, says the magnetometer is great at detecting magnetic anomalies—distinctive variations in Earth’s magnetic field caused by magnetic deposits or rock formations. There are already detailed maps of these anomalies made by satellite and terrestrial surveys. By comparing anomalies detected using the magnetometer against these maps, navigators can determine where they are. Because the magnetometer also indicates the orientation of magnetic fields, ships and submarines can use them to work out which direction they are heading.
China’s military is clearly worried about threats to its own version of GPS, known as BeiDou. Research into quantum navigation and sensing technology is under way at various institutes across the country, according to the CNAS report.
As well as being used for navigation, magnetometers can also detect and track the movement of large metallic objects, like submarines, by fluctuations they cause in local magnetic fields. Because they are very sensitive, the magnetometers are easily disrupted by background noise, so for now they are used for detection only at very short distances. But last year, the Chinese Academy of Sciences let slip that some Chinese researchers had found a way to compensate for this using quantum technology. That might mean the devices could be used in the future to spot submarines at much longer ranges.
A tight race
It’s still early days for militaries’ use of quantum technologies. There’s no guarantee they will work well at scale, or in conflict situations where absolute reliability is essential. But if they do succeed, quantum encryption and quantum radar could make a particularly big impact. Code-breaking and radar helped change the course of World War II. Quantum communications could make stealing secret messages much harder, or impossible. Quantum radar would render stealth planes as visible as ordinary ones. Both things would be game-changing.
It’s also too early to tell whether it will be China or the US that comes out on top in the quantum arms race—or whether it will lead to a Cold War–style stalemate. But the money China is pouring into quantum research is a sign of how determined it is to take the lead.
China has also managed to cultivate close working relationships between government research institutes, universities, and companies like CSIC and CETC. The US, by comparison, has only just passed legislation to create a national plan for coordinating public and private efforts. The delay in adopting such an approach has led to a lot of siloed projects and could slow the development of useful military applications. “We’re trying to get the research community to take more of a systems approach,” says Brodsky, the US army quantum expert.
Still, the US military does have some distinct advantages over the PLA. The Department of Defense has been investing in quantum research for a very long time, as have US spy agencies. The knowledge generated helps explains why US companies lead in areas like the development of powerful quantum computers, which harness entangled qubits to generate immense amounts of processing power.
The American military can also tap into work being done by its allies and by a vibrant academic research community at home. Baugh’s radar research, for instance, is funded by the Canadian government, and the US is planning a joint research initiative with its closest military partners—Canada, the UK, Australia, and New Zealand—in areas like quantum navigation.
All this has given the US has a head start in the quantum arms race. But China’s impressive effort to turbocharge quantum research means the gap between them is closing fast.
Novel functionalized nanomaterials for CO2 capture. Credit: Copyright Royal Society of Chemistry (RSC). Polshettiwar et al. Chemical Science
Scientists at the University of Waterloo have created a powder that can capture CO2 from factories and power plants.
The powder, created in the lab of Zhongwei Chen, a chemical engineering professor at Waterloo, can filter and remove CO2 at facilities powered by fossil fuels before it is released into the atmosphere and is twice as efficient as conventional methods.
Chen said the new process to manipulate the size and concentration of pores could also be used to produce optimized carbon powders for applications including water filtration and energy storage, the other main strand of research in his lab.
“This will be more and more important in the future,” said Chen, “We have to find ways to deal with all the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels.”
CO2 molecules stick to the surface of carbon when they come in contact with it, a process known as adsorption. Since it is abundant, inexpensive and environmentally friendly, that makes carbon an excellent material for CO2 capture. The researchers, who collaborated with colleagues at several universities in China, set out to improve adsorption performance by manipulating the size and concentration of pores in carbon materials.
The technique they developed uses heat and salt to extract a black carbon powder from plant matter. Carbon spheres that make up the powder have many, many pores and the vast majority of them are less than one-millionth of a metre in diameter.
“The porosity of this material is extremely high,” said Chen, who holds a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair in advanced materials for clean energy. “And because of their size, these pores can capture CO2 very efficiently. The performance is almost doubled.”
Once saturated with carbon dioxide at large point sources such as fossil fuel power plants, the powder would be transported to storage sites and buried in underground geological formations to prevent CO2 release into the atmosphere.
A paper on the CO2 capture work, In-situ ion-activated carbon nanospheres with tunable ultra-microporosity for superior CO2 capture, appears in the journal Carbon.
Read More:Quantum Computing and the New Space Racehttp://nationalinterest.org/feature/q… “In January 2017, Chinese scientists officially began experiments using the world’s first quantum-enabled satellite, which will carry out a series of tests aimed at investigating space-based quantum communications over the course of the next two years.”
Quantum Leap in Computer Simulationhttps://pursuit.unimelb.edu.au/articl… “Ultimately it will help us understand and test the sorts of problems an eventually scaled-up quantum computer will be used for, as the quantum hardware is developed over the next decade or so.”
University of Waterloo chemists have found a much faster and more efficient way to store and process information by expanding the limitations of how the flow of electricity can be used and managed.
In a recently released study, the chemists discovered that light can induce magnetization in certain semiconductors—the standard class of materials at the heart of all computing devices today.
“These results could allow for a fundamentally new way to process, transfer, and store information by electronic devices, that is much faster and more efficient than conventional electronics.”
For decades, computer chips have been shrinking thanks to a steady stream of technological improvements in processing density. Experts have, however, been warning that we’ll soon reach the end of the trend known as Moore’s Law, in which the number of transistors per square inch on integrated circuits double every year.
“Simply put, there’s a physical limit to the performance of conventional semiconductors as well as how dense you can build a chip,” said Pavle Radovanovic, a professor of chemistry and a member of the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology. “In order to continue improving chip performance, you would either need to change the material transistors are made of—from silicon, say to carbon nanotubes or graphene—or change how our current materials store and process information.”
Radovanovic’s finding is made possible by magnetism and a field called spintronics, which proposes to store binary information within an electron’s spin direction, in addition to its charge and plasmonics, which studies collective oscillations of elements in a material.
“We’ve basically magnetized individual semiconducting nanocrystals (tiny particles nearly 10,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair) with light at room temperature,” said Radovanovic. “It’s the first time someone’s been able to use collective motion of electrons, known as plasmon, to induce a stable magnetization within such a non-magnetic semiconductor material.”
In manipulating plasmon in doped indium oxide nanocrystals Radovanovic’s findings proves that the magnetic and semiconducting properties can indeed be coupled, all without needing ultra-low temperatures (cryogens) to operate a device.
He anticipates the findings could initially lead to highly sensitive magneto-optical sensors for thermal imaging and chemical sensing. In the future, he hopes to extend this approach to quantum sensing, data storage, and quantum information processing.
The findings of the research appeared recently in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.
Researchers in Canada have developed a technique for improving the energy storage capacity of supercapacitors. These developments could allow for mobile phones to eventually charge in seconds.
A supercapacitor can store far more electrical energy than a standard capacitor. They are able to charge and discharge far more rapidly than batteries, making them a much-discussed alternative to traditional batteries.
The main drawback of supercapacitors as a replacement for batteries is their limited storage: while they can store 10 to 100 times more electrical energy than a standard capacitor, this is still not enough to be useful as a battery replacement in smartphones, laptops, electric vehicles and other machines.
At present, supercapacitors can store enough energy to power laptops and other small devices for approximately a tenth as long as rechargeable batteries do.
Increases in the storage capacity of supercapacitors could allow for them to be made smaller and lighter, such that they can replace batteries in some devices that require fast charging and discharging.
A team of engineers at the University of Waterloo were able to create a new supercapacitor design which approximately doubles the amount of electrical energy that it can hold.
They did this by coating graphene with an oily liquid salt in the electrodes of supercapacitors. By adding a mixture of detergent and water, the droplets of the liquid salt were reduced to nanoscale sizes.
This salt acts as an electrolyte (which is required for storage of electrical charge), as well as preventing the atom-thick graphene sheets sticking together, hugely increasing their exposed surface area and optimising energy storage capacity.
“We’re showing record numbers for the energy-storage capacity of supercapacitors,” said Professor Michael Pope, a chemical engineer at the University of Waterloo. “And the more energy-dense we can make them, the more batteries we can start displacing.”
According to Professor Pope, supercapacitors could be a green replacement for lead-acid batteries in vehicles, capturing the energy otherwise wasted by buses and high-speed trains during braking. In the longer term, they could be used to power mobile phones and other consumer technology, as well as devices in remote locations, such as in orbit around Earth.
“If they are marketed in the correct ways for the right applications, we’ll start seeing more and more of them in our everyday lives,” said Professor Pope.
U of Waterloo: Forget the graphite-based lithium batteries currently powering your devices. Next-generation batteries could last for decades. Really.
With a potential lifespan of 10 to 20 years, Professor Zhongwei Chen’s next-generation rechargeable batteries are set to put the Energizer Bunny to shame.
“This battery could last 10 years, or even more than 20 years.”
Dr. Chen and his team are developing next-generation batteries and fuel cells. They are working on two types of batteries that are destined to be longer lasting and more efficient. One of these batteries is a rechargeable zinc battery that uses renewable energy, such as solar and wind. It could also be cost effective, which means that everyone could use it in the future.
Dr. Chen and his team are using novel materials to upgrade the traditional battery. He says that the key is to use silicon-based materials instead of graphite materials, which are currently being used in the commercial battery. Why? Silicon’s energy density is 10 times higher.
The result is a potential 150% energy density increase compared to its graphite-based lithium battery counterpart, which is currently being used to power electric cars and our cell phones. With the popularity of electric cars on the rise, companies such as Tesla and Panasonic are already looking to move beyond the limitations of the lithium battery.
Dr. Chen explains how he plans to solve the problems associated with the traditional battery as we move forward to meet the increased energy demands of the future.
MORE: Watch Our Current Battery Technology Project Video
A new company has been formed to exploit and commercialize the Next Generation Super-Capacitors and Batteries. The opportunity is based on Technology & Exclusive IP Licensing Rights from Rice University, discovered/ curated by Dr. James M. Tour, named “One of the Fifty (50) most influential scientists in the World today”
The Silicon Nanowires & Lithium Cobalt Oxide technology has been further advanced to provide a New Generation Battery that is:
High Specific Power
Low Manufacturing Cost
Rapid Charge/ Re-Charge
Flexible Form Factor
Long Warranty Life
Key Markets & Commercial Applications
Motor Cycle/ EV Batteries
Drone Batteries and
Estimated $112B Market for Rechargeable Batteries by 2025
Slate has recently published an online survey “Tell Us What You Think About Nanotechnology” (Follow the link above to take that survey).
Which … got us to thinking. “We” (Team GNT) should have our very own Survey on Nanotechnology with more focus on you … OUR READERS!
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So … we are asking you to share your comments with us by answering a few questions and also … leaving us any ‘Open Comments’ you would care to leave. We will gather your responses, share the most interesting ones and let you know what others are “thinking and saying” about Nanotechnology.
1. What Area or Application of Nanotechnology do you find most interesting? (Examples: Bio-Med, Cancer Treatment-Diagnosis, Electronics, Energy – Energy Storage, Materials, Sensors, Quantum Computing, etc.) Don’t let our suggestions limit your responses!
2. Which Areas or Applications do you think are most promising right now? In the future? that will dramatically change the World we live in?
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THE WATERLOO RESEARCHERS HELPING POWER A GLOBAL REVOLUTION
There is no magic bullet, no single solution that will address the massive global energy inequities that leave billions of people with little or no access to electricity. Instead, change will come from connecting the ideas, innovations and experience of some of the world’s top minds.
Affordable Energy for Humanity (AE4H) focuses on four broad areas of research with the greatest opportunity to create meaningful, sustainable energy change.
RESEARCH AREA 1
Generation, Devices And Advanced Materials
Promise and potential: Next-generation batteries
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Next-generation batteries are an emerging market with unlimited potential — and Waterloo chemistry professor Linda Nazar is eager to see her team’s extraordinary labours pay off.
Nazar, who was recently named an Officer of the Order of Canada for her advancements in battery systems and clean-energy storage, is contributing to breakthroughs in the design of rechargeable batteries for grid storage, electric vehicles and other clean-energy technology.
“Our research team and others at the University of Waterloo are working on a lot of different battery technologies where we’re starting to see the hard efforts that we’ve put in over the last decade really paying off in terms of making batteries that have higher energy density, that are safer and also have longer cycle life,” says Nazar, who along with colleagues at the Waterloo Institute for Nanotechnology, Zhongwei Chen and Michel Pope, are planning to launch an Electrochemical Energy Research Centre at the University.
Their work could have huge ramifications for energy-poor developing countries.
“In impoverished countries where there’s an abundance of sunshine, it’s critical to be able to store renewable energy in affordable energy storage systems to allow for load leveling and also for storage at night or even off-season storage,” Nazar says.
“That allows communities that are limited in their electrical resources to have a cheap, abundant source of energy to power activity in the evening and when the sun isn’t shining.”
RESEARCH AREA 2
Information And Communication Technologies For Energy System Convergence
Reducing the carbon footprint, improving energy efficiency
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Energy poverty is one of the biggest challenges facing humanity, according to Waterloo computer science professor Srinivasan Keshav.
“More than one billion around the world don’t have access to good forms of energy,” Keshav says. “The only energy they have is their own human labour, so if they want to dig a trench they have to do it by hand. How much firewood they can carry determines what they’re going to cook. That’s really what it comes down to.”
Keshav and his research team are focusing on greener, more efficient sources of energy that will ultimately help address these inequities.
“The work I’m doing in this lab is focused on two things,” Keshav explains. “One is to reduce the carbon footprint. The other is to improve the energy efficiency of systems that generate, transmit and consume energy — everything from power plants to the solar panels on your roof.
“Solar efficiency is going up and the costs are coming down at the same rate as costs have gone down for electronics. The same thing is happening with lighting. The technology is now coming into place which allows us to put a panel on the roof, [add] storage and efficient lighting — and you have the ability to transform lives.
“At some level the changes come not just from technology but from policy, not from research but from imagination. We make it possible for somebody to imagine a different future — and that perhaps is the biggest thing we do.”
A smart grid for smarter energy
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Just as smartphone technology has come to dominate the way we communicate, the future of 21st-century electricity may well belong to the smart grid.
The smart grid is an intelligent infrastructure that uses information technology — sensors, communications, automation and computers — to improve the way electricity is delivered. It also allows for renewables such as wind and solar power to be part of the equation.
“A lot of people do not have access to the electrical grid the way we do,” says Catherine Rosenberg, a professor of engineering and Canada Research Chair in the Future Internet at Waterloo. “There are two types of technologies that can have a major impact on the smart grid. The first technology is renewables — solar, wind. The second is energy storage.”
Rosenberg, who is collaborating with computer science professor Srinivasan Keshav, says that having access to renewable energy — solar panels, for example — and some storage would allow communities without grid access or with poor grid access to be self-sufficient.
Just as importantly, access must be affordable, and Rosenberg is optimistic that storage will become cost-efficient in the near future.
“Because there are more and more needs for energy storage— for example for electric vehicles — the price of energy storage is going to decrease,” she says. “We are in the business of designing systems by integrating many technologies and showing how those systems should be operated in a cost-efficient manner.”
Environmental and Human Dimensions Of Energy Transitions
Energy and sustainability: Lessons from the North
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Energy poverty is not confined to the developing world. There are nearly 300 remote communities across northern Canada — about 170 of them First Nations — and most rely on diesel generators with fuel flown in or trucked in via ice road.
It’s not only environmentally damaging, it’s also incredibly expensive — up to $1 per kilowatt hour — so building capacity to get energy from renewable sources is the preferred option.
“In our First Nations communities, we see both huge need and huge opportunity,” says Paul Parker, a professor in the Faculty of Environment. “We are here to work with communities to achieve what they want. The first question is, ‘What future do you want?’ And then it’s, ‘How do we design, evaluate and implement it?’
“The University of Waterloo is probably most famous for its technical capacity, but we also realize that technical capacity needs to have social context. We need the social scientists to work with our engineers and technicians in the North. Our students are fantastic. We’ve trained economic developers for communities across the North where they look and they see an opportunity and they say, ‘Let’s take those solutions to as many communities as possible,’ ” Parker says.
“We already have the technology to make these things happen, so [it’s about] the implementation. And what we are learning in Canada has [global implications] in other parts of the world that experience energy poverty.”
As flaws in centralized power grids become apparent — their vulnerability to disruption and dependence on planet-warming fossil fuels — the time has come for renewable energy microgrids to take centre stage.
“Here at Waterloo we have a lot of expertise to provide in microgrids, not only to Canada but to the world, from simulation and modelling to hardware and social interactions withcommunities,” says Claudio Cañizares, a professor of electrical and computer engineering at Waterloo.
Scientists are trying to transform microgrids — which can operate independently or in conjunction with main power grids — into renewable energy-based systems by introducing solar and wind power. Challenges being addressed by research at Waterloo include making the systems economically feasible, and learning to manage the variability inherent to renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Cañizares and his fellow researchers are doing both theoretical work — simulation, modeling, optimization — and applied science so they can understand how the controls work in different environments.
“One of the main motivations for our work here is to try to improve or facilitate the introduction of these renewable sources and to move away from diesel in the remote, mostly indigenous, communities in Canada,” Cañizares says.
Ultimately, Cañizares believes the impact of affordable energy access will change lives.
His research partners in northern Chile, for example, are seeing young people who had left their communities return once affordable energy sources are introduced, and business opportunities cropping up that didn’t exist before.
“We have come a long way,” he says. “We believe Waterloo is particularly well-positioned … people are paying attention.”
Video: Matt Regehr and Light Imaging
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