When Karthik Shankar walks through a forest, he sees much more than just trees and plants.

“I see a hierarchy of nanostructures when I look at trees,” said the assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Alberta. “I almost take them for granted because nanostructures are everywhere in nature.”

But it is this unique view of his surroundings that has inspired Shankar to look at increasing the amount of energy produced by solar panels by converting semiconductors to nanostructures and combining them with metallic nanoparticles. This combination results in a lower-cost, solar cell that absorbs more light — from ultra violet to infrared — more efficiently.

This idea has led to Shankar being given the Petro-Canada Young Innovator Award as well as $20,000 in grant money to make his vision a reality.

“It’s very exciting to win this award,” said the India native, who plans on using the grant money to purchase new equipment and fund a graduate student to help with the work. “I think it might be eight to 10 years before this technology is fully developed, but this is definitely a good beginning.”

Shankar said that he feels lucky to be in Alberta and at the U of A doing this research.

“I think there’s growing interest in this province and the U of A is one of the best places to be doing this work,” he said. “We have the Alberta NanoFab on campus and it’s one of the most recognized nano fabrication research facilities in the country.

“This research in nano-structures is a step ahead of what’s coming out there,” he added. “It’s on the frontier of nanotechnology.”

Shankar explained that not only will this use of nanostructures create a more efficient, clean source of energy, but they provide some significant spin-off benefits as well.

“If we add nanostructure semiconducter particles to water, we can break down pollutants when the sunlight hits it,” he said. “The sunlight will “crack” the hydro carbons in the water.”

Shankar said he also hopes that his work will increase understanding of nanostructures and nanotechnology within the public.

“It’s an area that will become more and more relevant to our daily lives,” he said. “There is such a range of applications and opportunities to use nanostructures because they are everywhere — the possibilities are almost endless.”

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