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Phil Boutin's Solar-Powered Future

Phil Boutin's Solar-Powered Future

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Phil Boutin is a young chemist, or physicist, depending on how you look at it. Boutin found a niche somewhere between his undergraduate passion, physics, and his Master’s field, chemistry. Starting his Ph.D. in May, Boutin calls himself a materials scientist, and that feels like the right fit. “If you take a look at my transcript, for half of my degree I’m a physics major, for half of my degree I’m a declared environmental science major, so I guess renewable energy was a reoccurring theme,” said Boutin over the phone. But he didn’t quite find place in environmental studies, or physics, until third year.

The class that changed things for him was nothing scintillating; taught by the book, literally pulling slide content from the provided textbook—a straightforward lecture. The kind of class that can be a nightmare if you aren’t absolutely captured by the content. But for some reason, said Boutin, “That was the single most exciting and most interesting class for me.”

“I’d been on the farm putting up solar panels since I was 12, 13,” he said, but the possibility for real advancement in the field didn’t seem obvious to him until that fateful course.

“If we can get to a point in society where this is real, where it’s not just stuff in a lab but real, I don’t know how else to describe that, that would be just it. That was it for me.”

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So after his physics undergrad, he spoke with his current adviser, Dr. Ronald Steer, and ten minutes later, he’d found his home. In chemistry.

To make the change, he had to go throughout the University of Saskatchewan’s Master’s student chemistry bootcamp. Inorganic chemistry, polymer synthesis… He hadn’t the slightest background in any of it.

“I would take the notes in class, I would go home and do the notes again, and I would go in the next day to talk to the prof to go through the questions,” said Boutin. His stress levels were through the roof, but that’s noting unusual for the guy. Plus, when it came to electronics and thermodynamics, his background in physics had given him an edge.

Under Dr. Steer and Dr. Timothy Kelly, Boutin began his work on solar cells. And luck played right to him, as their collaborators in Melbourne had an exciting new material for him to study.

Since current solar cells suffer from low efficiencies, high delicacy, and limited flexibility, the search is on to improving the technology.

The ultimate goal for the field, he says, “is if we could find or make a plastic, so that if you had a strand of it, you could shoot it with two photons, and it would absorb both of them and emit one higher-energy photon.”

“We aren’t quite there yet,” he admits.

The concept is that, to improve solar cells, a layer that catches whatever light couldn’t be absorbed by the cell in the first place should be built behind the solar cell itself. This second layer would intensify that light, and send it back into the cell for use.

He describes this process as being like a soccer game: the defence is there to catch whatever they can, and if they can’t, then the goalie needs to catch it and send it back. In order to maximize photo cell efficiency, Boutin and other solar cell researchers have to find a material that can actually catch and re-emit photons efficiently.

The Melbourne team he works with had found something that might fit the bill, and sent it to Boutin for analysis. The new material presented a fun challenge for Boutin in the lab. There was only a small amount of it in existence.

One evening, Boutin looked his supervisor up in the phone book and called him at 9 p.m., after starting his day at the lab at 8 a.m. He told Dr. Steer the experiments he had done, and had one simple question for his advisor:

“I had to ask him, is there anything else we need to test? Because if I shut down now, there is not enough sample to do any more experiments tomorrow. We have to get it tonight.”

The other side of that equation is the very excitement of doing cutting-edge research with a brand new material.

“I love the feeling — it’s an amazing feeling — of getting out of the lab and thinking, I’m the first person to ever do this.”

In the end, the material did up-convert low-energy photons into higher-energy photons, but the efficiency increases are still marginal.

Boutin’s results were published in Journal of Physical Chemistry Letters, and at the end of the paper, the team proposed a new system that they might be able to use to get a yield at a level that that could actually be used in solar cells.

And because the excitement of being a part of that future has caught him so intensely, that’s exactly what Boutin will be working on for his Ph.D. in May.

“I’d love to find a job out of academia, but this is the most exciting work I can imagine right now.

This post originally appeared on the Canadian Science Writers' blog.
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