Challenges and Opportunities in an Emerging Solar Economy

Part of Illinois Institute of Technology’s Wanger Institute for Sustainability Energy Research (WISER) 2018 Distinguished Lectureship Series.

For most of our existence, humans have been sustained by solar energy harnessed on the same timescale as its use. Only in the last two centuries have we become dependent on fossil resources. The ability to store energy in a dense form and use it easily led to unparalleled growth in science, technology, and commerce, and a greatly improved lifestyle, previously unimaginable for the common person. However, as the world population is expected to rise from roughly 7 billion to 10 billion, and lifestyle is expected to continue to improve in most parts of the world, the resulting rapid increase in demand for energy will place tremendous pressure on the availability of fossil resources.

Solar irradiation represents the only power source that can meet daily human needs for any foreseeable future. Therefore, as we bid farewell to fossil resources to reembrace solar power, the question before us is: what challenges and opportunities might emerge in this solar economy and how will we adapt to them?

To understand the roles that engineers could play in this transition, we must begin by understanding the great challenges that will emerge due to the dilute nature of solar irradiation, the low efficiencies at which it is harnessed, and its intermittency in availability. When, on a daily basis, solar irradiation becomes the main supplier for food, energy, water, chemicals, and other human needs, we will also experience new and changed opportunities.

In this lecture, Dr. Agrawal will discuss the challenges related to harvesting solar power and its subsequent conversion and use, and demonstrate the need for an interdisciplinary approach to the development of successful engineering solutions. He will provide examples from his research group’s current efforts in energy and systems analysis, solution processed solar cells, biomass conversion to liquid fuels, and energy storage at GWhr levels. Dr. Agrawal will make the case that, if these emerging challenges are properly addressed, our future will be as bright and exciting in the sustainable-solar-powered world as it has been in the fossil-resource-driven world.

Rakesh Agrawal, Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor, Davidson School of Chemical Engineering, Purdue University. Member of the U.S. National Academy of Engineering; Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, U.S. National Academy of Inventors, and Indian National Academy of Engineering. Recipient of the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, 2011.

This lecture presented by IIT Wanger Institute for Sustainable Energy Research (WISER) and Armour College of Engineering Departments of: Chemical and Biological Engineering; Civil and Architectural Engineering; Electrical and Computer Engineering; and Mechanical, Materials, and Aerospace Engineering.