Research makes bright ideas brighter

A series of solar panels set up on the sand under a bright blue sky.

Research makes bright ideas brighter

Made-in-Canada solar panels are some of the most affordable and efficient on the market thanks in part to a research collaboration at the University of Ottawa
December 3, 2015

The Morgan brothers’ bright idea first flickered to life in 2006 in central Africa in the Democratic Republic of Congo. John Paul Morgan, the younger of the two, was working as a logistics expert for Médecins Sans Frontières in Shabunda, a small town in the eastern region of the country that has little in the way of roads, electricity and running water. On most days, local women would travel great distances to gather water for the hospital in town. To spare them this daily effort, John Paul built a solar-powered pump that supplied clean, running water to the hospital.

The reality of life without power, and the daily toil that it caused, stayed with John Paul when he returned to Canada. He was inspired to apply his background in optics and engineering to invent a cheap, durable and portable solar panel that could generate electricity in the most remote areas of the world.

With financial support from his father, Eric, along with the marketing and leadership expertise of older brother Nicolas, John Paul and his family established Morgan Solar in Toronto in 2007. Their goal: invent a photovoltaic cell that captures a greater yield of the sun’s energy and converts it into more power than would normally be generated by traditional solar cells. And do it for cheaper than all the rest.

To make an inexpensive, cutting-edge solar cell, the brothers turned to Karin Hinzer, founder of the SUNLAB at the University of Ottawa. The lab is a state-of-the-art facility where, for the past six years, Hinzer and her team have been researching new ways to optimize the amount of energy a solar cell collects from the full spectrum of sunlight — from infrared through visible and into ultraviolet rays.  Hinzer says the average commercial solar panel currently gathers approximately 15 to 20 percent of the sun’s light. Forty-seven percent efficiency is the world record for a solar cell while calculations suggest 93 percent is theoretically possible.

It’s that possibility that Hinzer and the Morgan brothers have in mind. When John Paul and Nicolas approached Hinzer in 2009, they were seeking help to assess the design and function of their latest lightweight solar modules. Their collaboration continues today. Hinzer and her students use their tools to test and measure Morgan Solar’s latest technologies and then provide the brothers with the data they need to make their panels slimmer, lighter and more efficient. “They are the IKEA of energy systems,” says Hinzer. “Their solar technology can be packed into a flat box, shipped around the world and deployed almost instantly.”

The brothers have invested more than $45 million in their technology so far and have maintained much of their manufacturing in Canada, which has resulted in 60 jobs to date.

Originally posted November 2014