Laval-based WattByWatt converts light to energy
EP&T MagazineElectronics Power Supply / Management Engineering Environmental battery energy power renewable research
Quebec start-up seeks to disrupt how we power our everyday electronics
Thanks to the breakthrough technology of a Laval-based deep tech start-up, with the help of local university students, you may never have to plug your cellphone in to charge again. All you will need is light.
WattByWatt, launched in January 2021 to produce renewable energy from light using perovskites, a naturally occurring mineral being considered the future of solar cells, is on a mission to produce energy from light efficiently and reliably. The company’s patented technology, called Perovton, is on the verge of changing how everyday household and industrial devices are powered forever.
The research is being propelled through an internship program funded by Mitacs — a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada and provides students with unique opportunities to work on real-world, leading-edge projects. In order to bring its innovation to market, WattByWatt is working with three Mitacs interns from the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS) and the University of Sherbrooke.
“The magic of this new photovoltaic material is that it works indoors,” said Pierre Des Lierres, WattByWatt Business Development Director, explaining that his company’s next-generation renewable energy system — which was financed by an initial funding of $4 million from private equity investors through WhiteHaven Securities, a leading Canadian exempt market dealer — harvests both natural and artificial light, and converts it into energy.
“Our technology means we can recharge small electronic devices like cellphones and remote controls, smoke detectors, and retail tags with the light energy we already pay for in our homes, offices, or industrial buildings,” Des Lierres said. “At the same time, we’re eliminating the need to replace batteries, which will significantly reduce the billions of batteries that currently end up in landfills each year.”
In just two years, the company has grown to ten employees and is currently seeking an additional $25 million in funding as it gears up to scale manufacturing. The value of tapping into cutting-edge research expertise at an affordable rate is huge, said Des Lierres.
“The Mitacs internship program is a game-changer for us,” he said. “With the support of Mitacs, we’re procuring a leadership position for Canada in the renewable energy sector by training and hiring high-quality talent here.”
Mitacs postdoctoral intern Soroush Hafezian recently accepted a full-time position at WattByWatt after helping to progress the company’s development roadmap. He called the experience extremely rewarding and is excited about the opportunity to further advance both his personal skills and the technology.
“I’m confident that pushing the science of solar energy harvesting to new heights will trigger great positive impacts in the near future,” said Hafezian. “My Mitacs internship allowed me to apply my knowledge and do a smooth transition into the industry. I look forward to taking part in this venture with the team.”
Ground-breaking work shows early promise
WattByWatt, the only Quebec firm developing a perovskite solar cell solution, is first in the world to patent a manufacturing process that enables the product to be made outside of a high-cost clean room. As a result, manufacturing facility and production costs will be significantly reduced by as much as 50%, allowing the technology to become widely accessible.
This month, the company is breaking ground on a 5,000-square-foot research development lab and pilot production facility in Laval that will be up and running by March 2023. The first application will be a very small, yet powerful photovoltaic cell that measures less than one square centimetre and can produce more than one volt of charge from a 25-watt bulb, achieving a high efficiency rating.
Potential applications for the novel energy system range from charging cellphones or Internet of Things (IoT) sensors, to powering the beacons and smart RFID tags found on items in the supermarket, to charging outdoor cameras or household WiFi networks. Currently, the company is in discussions with major companies to adopt Perovton in their next designs of electronic products, and plans to commercialize within two to three years, said Des Lierres.
“If we can get this technology into every cellphone out there, for example, the environmental impact would be enormous,” said Des Lierres, noting that it takes just under two kilowatt-hours of electricity per year to charge a single phone. “When you multiply that by the estimated 6.6 billion smartphone users globally, that’s a lot of energy we can save by removing the need to plug into the grid.”
Longer term, the company is working to create a more durable and stable form of perovskite that will serve as a more efficient and environmentally friendly alternative or complement to silicone on large solar panel installations. Whereas silicone requires direct infrared sunlight to achieve maximum performance, perovskite works with visible light meaning it would continue to harvest energy even in cloudy conditions.
Student, small business opportunities
“Mitacs is proud to support small businesses as they aim to unlock the equation to scaling up their R&D efforts by using the talent and expertise from the post-secondary sector,” said Mitacs CEO John Hepburn, noting that Mitacs acts as a matchmaker of sorts, helping to fill the country’s labour pool gap by placing talented students in positions that fit their skills.
With Statistics Canada reporting an all-time low ratio in unemployment-to-job vacancy in every province, organizations are hungry for top talent. At the same time, a recent survey by Mitacs showed that students lack confidence in certain skills identified as key by industry, including team management (19 percent) and project management (24 percent).
In response, Mitacs is beefing up efforts to place as many interns as possible in needed positions, said Hepburn.
“Internships provide students with the opportunity to apply academic knowledge to problem-solving skills that are critical for the future workforce, experience which they just can’t get in the classroom,” said Hepburn. “With more jobs being filled by capable students, we’re helping to improve Canada’s productivity and homegrown innovation. It’s a win-win for students, post-secondary institutions, small businesses, industry, and the country’s prosperity as a whole.”