By Peter Kallai
On March 7, we convened at the Toronto headquarters of CSAGroup a workshop that once again demonstrated the need to create a new dynamic between industry, academia and government if we want to boost Canada’s knowledge-based economy.
The workshop, a joint effort between the CPEIA and the National Research Council, focused on organic photovoltaics (OPV), to highlight who is working in this space in Canada and the value of their work, and to connect industry and academia for joint development and commercialization. We wanted to foster new connections between companies and academic R&D teams, and raise awareness and appreciation of their respective R&D programs, skillsets and challenges.
Big benefits, and it’s green, too
OPV is another example of the switch from silicon to carbon-based electronics with the resulting benefits of low cost, high production volume and significant environmental benefits. These flexible solar cells based on thin films can potentially be incorporated into a variety of materials, from window blinds to glass and roofing materials. A building’s entire exterior could be turned into a power generator, in a far more flexible and cost-effective way than is possible with conventional inorganic solar cells.
In addition to energy harvesting applications for residential and commercial real estate, OPV also has applications in automotive, point-of-sale and advertising, apparel and consumer electronics. New high sensitivity OPVs, such as those from CPEIA Member company Wibicom, can even harvest ambient light for low-power applications such as self-powered sensors and self-powered antennas.
But some technical hurdles remain to be overcome for mass adoption of OPV – relative low efficiency, low stability and low strength compared to inorganic photovoltaic cells such as those based on silicon. For companies in this space, the broad market potential and environmental benefits of OPV outweigh the hurdles that remain.
Workshop participants heard from 16 speakers, representing academic research groups, government research labs, OPV startups and SMEs and multinationals with established OPV-related product lines and R&D teams. In addition, the audience included end-user companies looking to integrate OPV functionality into conventional products. In all, 30 people representing 22 organizations took part.
But there were notable absences. The Canadian Solar Industries Association (CanSIA), for example, expressed little interest in the workshop despite direct outreach to its executive. Nor did we attract participation from companies in the business of importing, designing and installing conventional residential photovoltaic systems for their views on the practical aspects of deploying new technology in the field.
Canada is strong in this area, but hurdles remain
Despite vast amounts of R&D into OPV globally, there has been to date relatively little commercialization. The expertise of the workshop participants illustrated OPV is an area of strength for Canada. We just need the right supportive framework to turn our cutting-edge research into market-ready products.
The day concluded with a round table discussion. This open forum engaged organizations from across the supply chain for a frank exchange on the challenges and opportunities facing Canada’s OPV sector.
Participants agreed there remains a significant gap between the university research lab and achieving a commercially viable product or solution ready to scale. The ecosystem and the technology development roadmap for OPV in Canada remains fragmented and without a plan to get to market.
Startups and young companies struggle to achieve market penetration and identify clear verticals with an educated market of end-users ready to adopt new technology. Their challenge is to identify and capture niche market opportunities such as self-powered sensors and energy harvesting for wearables that are untapped by larger and more established players.
Larger companies and multinationals, meanwhile, veer towards pursuing or supporting only those opportunities with mass-market potential and high revenue, such as windows with integrated OPV for buildings and homes.
What the sector needs
Participants agreed that developing and unifying Canada’s OPV sector requires a multi-pronged approach:
- There must be tighter linkages between academic research and the needs of industry to support commercialization. University R&D should go beyond just discovery and proof of concept – academic research must focus more on the needs of industry.
- There is a need for more coordinated R&D that goes beyond individual labs to create shared resources that support the commercialization of viable products, even if such products focus on niche markets instead of the mass market. Such coordinated R&D must have the scale, length and a timeline for commercialization.
- By providing funding for emerging strategic technologies such as OPV, government can shorten and enhance the path to commercialization, with industry-driven programs and funding vehicles that look beyond R&D to support collaborations within industry and the creation of global supply chains.
- The OPV sector must engage with other strategic partners that represent end user verticals, to focus product development and shorten time to market.
We’ve heard this before
Not surprisingly, these findings mirror those of the Sector Development Leadership Council we convened at XRCC last November. The status quo simply does not provide the support Canadian industry needs to gain traction in global markets for emerging technologies. We too often lack the supportive framework to seize first mover advantage and lead rather than follow.
Through 2017, the CPEIA, based on the license granted to us by our Members, will continue to push this agenda and bridge the gap between Canadian innovation and commercial success through our programming and through advocacy to those government decision makers in a position to provide funding and other support to our sector.
A report on the OPV workshop will soon be available to participants and CPEIA Members.