2020 TLCERF Grants Awarded!

Although 2020 has been a challenging year all across the world, with graduate students at most Universities across the country having to adjust their plans and transition to remote work and research, this year’s round of grant applications were once again stacked with accomplished and impressive candidates. Once again, this year saw a diverse scope of projects and post-secondary institutions, with almost every province and STEM departments being represented.

The Foundation’s grant advisors, with help from the Foundation Board members, had the daunting task of selecting this year’s grant winners from a large pool of many well deserving applications. After a very challenging adjudication process, the Foundation is excited to once again announce three worthy awardees: Eli Martel (McGill University), Sean Thornton (Dalhousie University) and Alexandra Tully (University of British Columbia). Everyone at the Tyler Lewis Clean Energy Research Foundation is extremely proud to have these three join the ranks of Foundation awardees, as they are not only strong researchers investigating promising clean energy topics, but they also embody the Foundation’s mission beyond their research. An introduction to each award recipient and their research is summarised below.

Eli Martel – Three-terminal suspended graphene energy efficient switches McGill University (PhD, Physics)

Eli received his B.Sc in Physics at the Université de Montréal, followed by his Masters in Physics at McGill University in 2019. Throughout his years as a student, Eli has been involved with many other endeavours, including teaching CÉGEP (Collège d’enseignement general et professionnel, General and professional teaching college) level physics classes. For the past two years, Eli has been the president of the committee of the RQÉMP (Regroupement québécois étudiant sur les matériaux de pointe), also known as the “Student branch of the Québec strategic cluster in materials science”. When away from his research and other academic responsibilities, Eli can be found outdoors in nature, where he enjoys hiking, biking, canoeing, landscape photography, as well as camping. Eli’s current PhD work is dedicated to investigating more energy efficient electrical switches. A summary of his project, in his own words, is described below:

For the last 70 years, solid-state transistor technology has evolved immensely to reflect our dependence on faster, more reliable and efficient systems. These transistors are used in digital circuits everywhere, however modern electronic hardware still contributes significantly to our global energy consumption; 21% of global electricity production is projected to be consumed by information technology by 2030. The energy consumed per transistor is proportional to the square of its operating voltage. Finding an alternative to conventional transistor technology is crucial in order to minimize the energy we consume. Electromechanical switches are thin membranes that are actuated using an electric field and could reduce the operating voltage, thereby reducing energy consumption while retaining competitive operating speeds and relatively small sizes. Graphene is the strongest known material, yet it is quite flexible due to its extreme thinness, making it a popular candidate for use in electromechanical systems. Despite the progress made over the past ten years in fabricating graphene switches, a system operating at voltages below 1V has yet to be achieved. Theoretical predictions and models show that operating voltages below 100mV can be achieved with a suspended graphene switch, reducing the energy consumed by a factor of 100 compared to their solid-state transistor counterpart!

Scanning electron microscopy image of the graphene material used in Eli’s research.

Our goal is to produce a three-terminal suspended graphene switch that can be operated well below 1V (see figure below). By considering the device design criteria obtained through theoretical calculations, as well as using state of the art fabrication techniques and equipment, we strive to achieve suspended graphene switches with exceptional energy efficiency that can be effortlessly implemented into simple logic circuits for a variety of applications. Such devices would help pave the way for a drastic reduction in our energy consumption in the wake of climate change, but would also facilitate a transition to technologies that go beyond conventional solid-state transistors.

Illustration depicting the actuation of the graphene switch device.

The TLCERF grant is crucial for our research project in that it is allowing me to dedicate my time and energy as a graduate student to undertake this very important work. Funding can be a difficult thing to achieve, so the peace of mind and flexibility that this allows is paramount to getting the work done efficiently.

Sean Thornton – Semiconductor perovskites for solution-processed photovoltaic devices Dalhousie University (PhD, Chemical Engineering)

Sean received a Bachelors of Engineering degree in Environmental Engineering from Dalhousie University in 2019. After transferring from the MASc. program, Sean is currently a Ph.D. student in Chemical Engineering and an engineer-in-training (E.I.T.) at Dalhousie University, under the supervision of Ghada Koleilat. Sean is a recipient of the Dr. Robert Gillespie Graduate Scholarship and the Engineering Excellence Graduate Scholarship. His extracurricular activities include being the Vice-President for the Student Energy chapter at Dalhousie, an organization that seeks to foster awareness of energy sources, challenges, and transitions in our society, as well as a finalist for the 3-Minute-Thesis (3MT) competition for his talk on green solar energy.

At Dalhousie University, Sean is currently conducting research in the area of solar cells and in particular, perovskites photovoltaic devices, described by Sean as follows:

Energy is the most important driver for enhancing quality of life. Humans depend on energy resources in every aspect of their daily lives to access basic rights like clean water, food, and light. Providing energy for developing countries, some of the most populous and impoverished regions, could profoundly impact their health and well-being at levels that surpass vaccines and many other medical interventions. Currently, fossil fuels are widely used, which are non-renewable and cause environmental issues such as climate change and pollution. To satisfy the current and growing demands for energy globally, renewable energy sources are key. The most promising renewable energy source is not only abundant but also accessible in all areas of the planet: the sun. In fact, the sun provides enough energy in one hour to satisfy the entire world’s yearly energy demand if harnessed! While production of conventional bulk semiconductors (such as silicon) is expensive and energy-intensive, a new semiconductor material called perovskite is cheap, easily produced and has already reached efficiencies that rival conventional solar energy sources. Perovskite can also be processed via solution and deployed on large-area surfaces through roll-to-roll processing (R2R). Despite its promise, deployment of perovskite technology is currently stalled due to its use of lead (Pb), a toxic substance with environmental impacts as well as a relatively short lifetime. If funded, the proposed research to develop perovskite without reliance on lead would enable the global deployment of a breakthrough solar technology that is both non-toxic and stable and could have a profound impact in underdeveloped regions where surfaces are a commodity and flexible lightweight solar modules are necessary. Providing such low-cost, non-toxic solar energy sources that are accessible to people around the world will be the next great leap forward for humanity.

The Tyler Lewis Clean Energy Research Foundation’s grant will allow me access to more equipment necessary for material testing and characterization of the perovskite solar cells. Furthermore, it will provide funds for conference participation to disseminate my research.

Alexandra Tully – Investigating charge transfer in organic solar cells University of British Columbia (PhD, Physics)

Born in Vancouver, Alexandra moved to Austin, Texas, at 10 years old. She received her B.Sc. in Physics with distinction from Yale in 2014 and was a member of Yale’s Grand Strategy class of 2013. After graduating, she worked as a senior analyst for the economic consulting firm Cornerstone Research, beginning in their New York office before moving to the UK to help establish their London office. In 2017, Alexandra returned to Canada for graduate school at the University of British Columbia (M.Sc. 2019, Ph.D. exp. 2023). She is the senior graduate student in a collaboration with Dr. Sarah Burke, Dr. David Jones, and Dr. Andrea Damascelli at UBC’s Stewart Blusson Quantum Matter Institute. In addition to her academic accomplishments, Alexandra speaks French, Mandarin, and Arabic, is a certified EMT, and races marathons. Alexandra’s current PhD work investigates some of the fundamental inner workings of organic solar cells to improve their efficiency. An overview of Alexandra’s research is given below in her own words:

A Nature review article from 2016 describes photovoltaics (what makes up a solar panel) as “the most elegant demonstration of renewable energy generation,” calling organic photovoltaics “arguably the most radical approach” (Leo 2016). While conventional silicon-based solar cells (CSCs) currently dominate the photovoltaic industry, carbon-based organic photovoltaics (OPVs) have the capability to fundamentally alter our engagement with solar energy. Where CSCs are heavy, opaque, and expensive, OPVs can be thin, flexible, light-weight, semi-transparent (even of tunable colour!), and inexpensive. They perform better under lower light intensities and take relatively little energy to produce. The combination of these qualities enables a degree of adaptation and integration of solar harvesting capabilities into common infrastructure that appeals to architects, commercial construction firms, the automobile industry, environmental policy groups, and your average homeowner alike. Although OPVs are nearing commercial-viability – with private companies working on this technology alongside countless academic institutions and research groups throughout the globe – increases in efficiency are required before OPV devices can become a viable alternative to CSCs. My research investigates the physics underlying one of the principal causes of inefficiency in OPVs: poor charge separation. Using a combination of scanning tunnelling microscopy and spectroscopy (STM and STS) and time- and angle-resolved photoemission spectroscopy (TR-ARPES) as my primary measurement tools, I am constructing a map that details the spatial and temporal energy landscape of OPV films. In short, TR-ARPES will enable a movie of the charge-separation process and STM/STS will give the “before and after” shots. Together, those measurements provide a complete picture of how charge separation occurs in OPVs.

The TLCERF grant will facilitate my travelling (Covid permitting) to work with two of our collaborators in the UK and Sweden to both investigate different OPV materials and perform complimentary measurements with increased time-resolution. If travel restrictions continue, we will upgrade our OPV film growth chamber to enable additional material studies in-house.