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Engineering Themes: Challenges and Opportunities in an Emerging Solar Economy

Event Date 

April 4, 2018 - 3:15pm to 4:30pm


Illinois Institute of Technology
10 West 33rd Street, Chicago
Perlstein Hall, Room 131


Dr. Rakesh Agrawal

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.

Speaker Bio 

Professor Agrawal’s current interest and passion is in energy production issues especially from renewable sources such as solar. The thrust of research is to fabricate low-cost solar cells based on nanotechnology.

Another major thrust of his current research is the development and optimization of processes to meet essential human needs including transportation fuel, chemicals, and electricity, primarily from renewable energy sources to enable a sustainable economy. This effort is also focused on efficient conversion of biomass to liquid fuel and maximizing liquid fuel from a given quantity of biomass.

The group is also involved with developing efficient separation processes. Currently methods to synthesize and identify energy efficient distillation configurations for multicomponent separation are being developed. Additional effort is being devoted to develop optimal methods for membrane separation processes.

He has a broad experience in hydrogen production and purification technologies. This has evolved from his earlier activity in developing integration steps within coal gasification combined cycles for power as well as syngas generation.

His research interests also include basic and applied research in process development, gas liquefaction processes, cryogenics, and thermodynamics.

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