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Here comes the sun for Phantin

Cheng Lu stands in front of a solar panel factory

Cheng Lu at the SkySolar Canada plant in Brampton

They started here: U of T recognizes top inventions

By 2017, it’s estimated Canada will have enough working solar panels to fill 55,000 football fields and generate 6GW of electricity each year.

Across the globe, vast fields of solar panels are growing China’s solar market by more than 10 GW of power every year.

Enter Cheng Lu, the brains behind Phantin, a dust-repelling, self-cleaning nanomaterial coating that keeps solar panels clean, boosts their energy production and requires less maintenance.

On May 17, Phantin will be among four products recognized as U of T Inventions of the Year. The awards, which recognize their uniqueness, potential for global impact and commercial appeal, were presented at the university’s third annual U of T Celebrates Innovation event in front of an estimated 200 guests, including Ontario Lt.-Gov. Elizabeth Dowdeswell.

“It’s exciting to be able to see your product out in the world,” says Lu, a research associate in U of T’s department of chemistry. “I started working on this as a hobby and now it’s more serious. This award will give us more attention, find more partners and attract more investors.”

“It’s a great validation of what Cheng has been doing,” adds his co-inventor, chemistry professor Cynthia Goh.

Already, in testing near Toronto, Phantin has improved solar electricity generation by four percent. That may not sound like a lot but with the solar market in Canada estimated to produce 6.3GW of power by 2020, Phantin could generate an extra 0.45 billion kWh of electricity annually, worth $200 million – or more in areas that are drier and dustier.

Sprayed on in an ultrathin transparent layer – often by Lu himself – Phantin is different from existing self-cleaning coatings. Along with stopping dust from settling, it also doesn’t require water and breaks down organic material through photocatalysis. That means improved energy production and less harm to the environment.

The product can be applied to existing panels or become part of the production process, he says. And someday, he hopes everyone can buy it in their local grocery store and spray it on their home solar panels themselves.

The research of a scientist like Lu can go in any number of directions. It could be publishing a paper or it could be translating their science into a product, explains Goh, who is also a director at U of T’s Impact Centre, one of nine campus-linked accelerators and more than 60 entrepreneurial program and course offerings under the umbrella of the Banting and Best Centre for Innovation & Entrepreneurship.

“We teach scientists on how to relate to the business world and we encourage them to see what the world needs and use that as pathway in their research,” she says, adding proudly: “Cheng will be the model of our future professors.”

A big reason Cheng thought of commercializing his product was because of an intensive summer program called Techno he took at the Impact Centre a few years. That support has continued at the university ever since as he worked to get Phantin off the ground.

“It’s been a chance to get to know the real world,” says Lu, who quickly corrects anyone who calls him a businessman. He remains a scientist first and foremost and has a partner that handles the business end of Phantin. “It’s a collaboration. We need scientists and businessmen to work together.”