Sustainability

Photovoltaics outshone as renewable energy source

On October 10, Materials Advantage, a club in the materials engineering department, hosted a talk by Professor Robert W. Messler given on the topic of sustainable energy with emphasis on the materials involved in these processes.

The talk began with a brief history of energy from building pyramids using strength or sailing across the seas by wind. All of these forms of energy are sustainable, which is interesting to think about. The talk then moved towards modern technology for gathering sustainable energy. The talk highlighted the utilization of heat and the steam engine. Messler was very well spoken and highlighted a few technologies some of which are more common than others.

Solar technology was discussed both in the form of solar thermal and photovoltaic. Solar thermal was given high praises, while photovoltaic was criticized immensely for its inefficiency. Photovoltaic was said to only be seven percent efficient, this being due to the fact that the light produced by the sun is much less than the heat produced by the sun. Photovoltaic is always known for its inefficiency; however, the idea of seven percent was shocking. Messler’s recommendation was to use solar thermal—or any other type of thermal—based renewable energy to generate steam and create current. Although this idea is so simple, it is not utilized much with regard to solar thermal, which is usually just used for heating, not creating, energy. It is very strange for an entire industry to be ignoring a simple solution like converting heat to electricity using solar thermal cells. Unfortunately, an explanation of this anomaly was never given.

The talk then turned to more experimental forms of energy and technology. A polymer that generates current under pressure was particularly interesting, as it could be implemented in so many places and in so many ways. Messler explained that one of the problems with this technology is the failure to use it in effective ways. Many of the people developing these technologies are not able to use them in creative and innovative ways, which can hold back the very technologies they create. This distance between the developers of technology and the users is also showcased in the form of the artificial leaf, which, although very interesting, has little practical application in the face of natural leaves.

All of these technologies were very inspiring, and at the end of the talk, many of us were filled with the ambitions of benefiting from sustainable technology. It was eye-opening to realize that many sustainable solutions are not used due to mismanagement on the part of the developers. In a sense, it offers hope because it means that a simple solution can fix so many of our sustainable problems. Technology without proper implementation is useless.

The main take-away of this talk, really, was that devolving technology is only part of the solution, and implanting it is the other part. In the case of solar technology, the wrong aspect of solar was implemented, which set back sustainability by making photovoltaic cells, a very inefficient technology, the main front.