Nanotech. Quantum leaps in solar technology

Our future lies in the hands of the young: Cassia Attard is seventeen years old, an innovation junkie, and a nanotech expert. The Canadian is investigating how our cities are becoming more sustainable: Could skyscraper window facades possibly be our new solar plants? She explains how mobility could benefit from quantum technology in “brass tacks with smart heads”.

Cassia, what makes a city livable for you?

I'm from Toronto and totally love this city. The things I like the most are that it's so easy to get everywhere and that so many interesting people live around the corner. For me, somebody who wants to change things, it's more than just home: It's an inspiring environment! That's why I will be staying there – for now at least.

What innovative ideas are you working on right now?

My greatest goal is to stop global climate change. I am currently looking at a number of topics that have the technological potential to do this. I am doing research into nanotechnology in the solar sector, with the goal of using solar energy more efficiently soon, but also into in-vitro meat and how artificial intelligence (AI) can be used to combat overfishing.

Cassia Attard is a 17-year-old innovator from Toronto. Her life goal is to stop climate change with innovative future technologies. She works as an innovator at "The Knowledge Society" (TKS) and focuses on forward-looking technologies such as nanotechnology, cellular agriculture and computer vision. She is already involved in several research projects, collaborating with experts at the universities of Toronto and Waterloo and with the Amp Solar Group. At the me Convention 2019 in Frankfurt, she reported on how light-absorbing quantum dots are revolutionizing solar technology and making our cities greener.

When did you start showing an interest in technology?

I was an inquisitive child and always showed an interest in research and environmental issues. I joined "The Knowledge Society" program, TKS for short, in November 2017. This really fires my passion for innovative technologies.

What makes an inventor like you?

My attitude. I may not have achieved anything revolutionary yet, but for me right now it's mostly about my inner attitude: If I carry on learning and remain curious, I will change the world at some point.

One of your quotes: “Our current solar technology is garbage!”

I don't want to sound too pessimistic. Solar technology was on the right track for a long time: After its invention in the 1950s, it became more and more efficient, but not much has changed in the last 20 years. We are still building the same, bright blue solar cells made of silicon. Everybody thinks that we are saving the world with this solar technology, but that is highly unlikely. The technology is already outdated, pretty inefficient, and therefore garbage.

17-year-old Cassia Attard is part of "The Knowledge Society" program in Toronto. Here the desire to innovate and the passion for unusual technologies know no bounds.

So, would it be better to focus on other renewable energies?

No, solar technology has huge as yet largely untapped potential: In a single day, we get enough energy from the sun to supply the entire world with electricity for a whole year. So, there is plenty of solar energy out there, we just have to get better at harnessing it – for example with perovskite or quantum dot solar cells, which are more efficient.

Why are quantum dot solar cells more efficient?

The advantage of quantum dots is that you can change their size so that they absorb different light colors. Different-size quantum dots can convert any light color into electricity – not only visible light, but a far wider spectrum. By way of comparison, existing silicon solar cells can only process certain wavelengths of light – their maximum theoretical efficiency is about 30 percent.

How big are quantum dots?

Imagine a human hair and then split it into 10,000 – that's about the size of a quantum dot. These nanoparticles are astonishingly small and also invisible. We can apply them on any surface such as metal or glass. Nanotechnology has huge potential – even or especially for major cities.

Solar technology has a big potential as a renewable energy, according to Cassia Attard.

In cities there is a lot of shade due to surrounding buildings. Why are the quantum dot solar cells an advantage here?

We can only use the conventional solar collectors on sun-drenched rooftops and, like I said, even these aren't efficient. With nano-solar cells, on the other hand, we use the existing infrastructure. We transform the rows of windows on skyscrapers into solar collectors. Or we coat the entire facade with quantum dots to capture all of the sunlight hitting the building and convert it into energy.

How do such innovative technologies help to make cities more ecofriendly?

Massively! With nanotechnology, cities may even be able to supply themselves with energy at some point. I want to do more research into this. But there are also other exciting ideas. One example is cement: If produced correctly, this material can absorb huge amounts of CO2. So we can make our cities more sustainable by reinventing everyday things like windows and cement in innovative ways.

Mobility also needs to become more sustainable: How can nanotechnology help with this?

Cars and nano-solar technology – that is really something! We will have to say farewell to cars with internal combustion engines at some point. We are already starting to switch to electric cars. We likewise need more efficient renewable energy sources for this.

Is it conceivable that our cars will be able to supply themselves with solar energy self-sufficiently at some point?

A group is conducting research into an entirely solar-powered car at the University of Waterloo. The car's entire surface consists of flexible solar panels, while the windows are coated with quantum dots. They actually could have coated the entire car with quantum dots because they are transparent and even stick to metal. Just imagine a car that simply runs even though you have no idea how it is powered. That would be absolutely crazy (laughs) and cool.

Cities could soon be self-sufficient with nanotechnology, according to Cassia Attard.

Is this all still a long way off?

The technology exists already. You may have already seen TVs with quantum technology offering better image quality? It's the same principle: Just like quantum dots, they can absorb light and also emit light. When it comes to commercial use of quantum dot solar cells, there are still a number of technical and economic hurdles to overcome.

Quantum dots are quite toxic among other things – how sustainable can this nanotechnology be?

The most efficient materials to date, such as lead sulphide, are absolutely toxic, that's correct, and not marketable. But the research into new, non-toxic materials is surging ahead, meaning that the challenges will doubtlessly soon be overcome.

Looking to the future, what will our mobility look like in the best-case scenario, or what must change?

We have to ask ourselves the following question: How can we shape mobility so that all people benefit from it, including those in faraway places in Africa or South America? A global challenge for which we can develop new transport solutions, for example. A Toronto-based company, Solar Ship makes huge balloons, powered by solar energy, to fly essential supplies to remote villages.

What can we as Daimler do to speed up the development of sustainable mobility?

Although progress is being made with electric cars, there is little research and development on cars that power themselves with renewable energy in the sector as a whole. That really would be interesting.

What's your next step in your quest to stop climate change?

Firstly, I would like to look deeply into the complex dynamics of climate change to select the best approach. The journey will start as soon as I have decided on which direction to take. I'll keep you posted.

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