While the industrialized countries of the world eagerly seek ways to cut back on their energy consumption, developing nations face a different challenge — ramping up their energy output as quickly and efficiently as possible.

“It takes energy to improve people’s standard of living,” says Federico Rosei, a professor at Montreal’s Institut national de la recherche scientifique (INRS) and director of the institution’s Énergie Matériaux Télécommunications research centre. However, the growth of energy production in the developing world cannot and should not mirror what has already taken place in the developed world, which continues to depend on fossil fuels, Rosei says. This approach is not sustainable, he argues, as evidenced by the growing cost of these energy vectors and their profound environmental consequences, from air pollution to climate change.

Photo of Federico Rosei

Federico Rosei of the Institut national de la recherche scientifique. Photo credit: Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.

For just that reason, Rosei has spent the past few years establishing a research program and Chair to explore more appropriate options for sustainable energy of the future that is endorsed by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).

Launched in Montreal this past April, the UNESCO Chair on Materials and Technologies for Energy Conversion, Saving and Storage will consider technology to improve the way energy is produced and used, so that it can drive development without becoming a burden for developing countries. This will be achieved by sharing knowledge on emerging energy technologies, accomplished through a program of visiting professorships, international workshops and student exchanges as well as building capacity by training PhD students from developing countries in Canada. More specifically, Rosei will be bringing his expertise in the architecture of nanoscale structures, which has already found significant applications in energy management. For example, he has found that simultaneously magnetic and ferroelectric materials can enhance solar power conversion, including the use of sunlight to extract hydrogen from water.

Such accomplishments earned him one of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council’s prestigious Steacie Fellowships this year. The award frees up faculty members from teaching and administrative duties for two years and provides them with a $250,000 grant to pursue novel work. “The Steacie Fellowship is amazing because it’s substantial support for fundamental, bold ideas,” says Rosei. “There are very few opportunities of this type in Canada.”

Rosei regards the UNESCO Chair as one that should enable him to turn cutting-edge science into some highly practical means of bettering the lives of millions of people around the world. As an added bonus, this same progress will benefit those of us struggling to find alternatives to energy from unsustainable sources. “We are in the midst of an energy crisis, to be sure,” he says. “But the Latin root of the word ‘crisis’ is ‘choice.’ When it comes to energy, our crisis is actually a decision point.”

Rosei also received the 2014 Award for Research Excellence in Materials Chemistry this past June at the Canadian Society for Chemistry’s 97th Canadian Chemistry Conference and Exhibition in Vancouver.