U of S chemistry professor wins national award for research in solar energy

Ronald Steer, professor in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan, has been awarded the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s John C. Polanyi Award.

The award is presented annually to recognize excellence by a scientist carrying out research in physical, theoretical or computational chemistry or chemical physics.

Steer is widely recognized as an outstanding researcher in photochemistry, photophysics and molecular fluorescence spectroscopy. His research on the behaviour of organic molecules that absorb light is leading to new insights in the field of solar energy.

"Solar energy represents the ultimate source of ‘green' power," said Steer, who has been in the U of S Department of Chemistry since 1969. "The available global supply represents about 10,000 times the world's current combined electrical power generation capacity."

But harvesting this abundance is a challenge, Steer explained, adding there are two main types of photovoltaic cells that harness sunlight and convert it into usable electricity. The first are inorganic cells, such as those used on the International Space Station, which can convert about 40 per cent or more of the sun's energy into electricity but are much too expensive for widespread use. The second is an organic solar cell that, while considerably less expensive, is also much less efficient—topping out at 10 per cent efficiency, and degrading too quickly for commercial use.

This is where Steer and his team—including Matt Paige, Tim Kelly, Ian Burgess and Rob Scott—are hoping to make progress, turning organic cells that are comparatively inefficient into more efficient and long-lasting sources of electrical energy.

"For me, these ideas are based on my 30-plus years of research in fundamental chemistry and physics that tells us there are a number of ways we can improve on current organic cells," said Steer. "We have the proof of principle and soon we'll be at the stage of having working devices."

The team has discovered a way to allow dye-sensitized photovoltaic cells (DSCs) to use more of the sunlight that hits them, and in particular, infrared rays that make up more than half of the solar energy reaching earth. They are also working to incorporate extremely tough materials, such as carbon nanotubes, into the DSCs to make them durable as well.

"If we can achieve even the slightest increase, even one or two per cent efficiency of these cells, it could be beneficial to everyone."

Steer played a leading role in establishing the Saskatchewan Structural Sciences Centre (SSSC), a world-class research facility at the U of S, and served as SSSC director from 2001-2004. He has been recognized for his work by his colleagues with various honours and awards, including his appointment as fellow of the Chemical Institute of Canada in 1978 and as Thorvaldson Professor of Chemistry at the University of Saskatchewan (1993-98).

Steer was awarded an Earned Doctor of Science from the U of S in 1995, the U of S Master Teacher Award in 1996 and was named a U of S Distinguished Professor in 2011.

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