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Michael Wasielewski, middle left, is a leader in solar energy research at Northwestern University and Argonne National Laboratory. He said at the Illinois Institute of Technology that solar is more than capable of exceeding energy demands in the decades to come.

Alternative energy set to power a world where demand will double

by Leslie Streicher
Feb 25, 2010


Leslie Streicher/MEDILL

An alternative energy panel at the Illinois Institute of Technology brought together Michael Wasielewski on solar energy; Jeffrey Chamberlain on high-powered batteries and Mohammad Shahidehpour on wind energy.

The challenge is great. The stakes are high. And the clock is ticking.    

Energy demand is expected to double by 2050, pressuring scientists to perfect alternative energies in the next few decades. Otherwise, we’re heading for a darker world with electricity shortages and blackouts.   

“If we don’t solve the issues of curing cancer in the next 50 years, life as we know it would pretty much go on as we’ve experienced it,” said Michael Wasielewski, echoing a statement by the U.S. Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu.

“If we don’t solve these energy issues in the next 50 years, life will become very, very grim. The number of people wanting energy will increase, the number of people using energy will increase, and lifestyles, the economy, everything will be substantially diminished.” 

While nuclear power remains an option, nuclear fuel waste storage and cost concerns are prompting scientists to explore other alternatives. 

Wasielewski, the director of the Argonne National Laboratory and Northwestern University Solar Energy Research center, joined other scientists at a public forum at the Illinois Institute of Technology to tackle solar, wind and battery power opportunities. The Chicago Council on Science and Technology sponsored the event.  

Each alternative has the potential to create clean, affordable and efficient power that promises to exceed global energy demands in the decades to come. But scientists still need to overcome obstacles of cost, storage and transmission to take command of the consumer market.    

“There are storage problems with all of these models,” said Jeffrey Chamberlain, an official at Argonne. For instance, solar energy works very well during daylight hours; but what about when the sun goes down? 

“We need to create solar fuels that can be produced and stored during the day for use when the sun isn’t available,” Wasielewski said.

Solar also could be used to generate hydrogen fuel that could be tapped anytime. Hydrogen fuels, which can be created by splitting water to capture the energy carried in hydrogen molecules, are the preferred solution to the energy problem but safety concerns with combustion still need to be addressed.

Hydrogen fuels will require a change in infrastructure –special hydrogen pumps will need to be added to fueling stations.  

“Right now it would be great if they had a way of taking the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to convert back into a fuel so that infrastructure changes are not needed,” Wasielewski said. Carbon dioxide, converted to a liquid fuel, could be delivered through standard gas stations and use pre-existing pumps.  

Another issue is the cost. With existing technologies, installing a solar photovoltaic home energy system costs about $6-12 per installed watt, according to the DOE. For home systems, that would mean an investment of $600 to light just one 100-watt bulb.

Wasielewski’s team is researching affordable, organic solar systems that mimic photosynthesis in plants.   

“Will energy be more expensive? Of course it will. But we need to decide for ourselves what we want to do for our own future well-being," Wasielewski said. "Things rarely get cheaper with time, and the price goes beyond just pure economics of daily life. It is the economics of maintaining our civilization.”

Wind energy faces similar complications.   

“The wind farms in Texas are actually producing so much energy right now that they are turning off the generators because they can’t use the energy,” Chamberlain said. “This is a storage problem.”  

Smart grid technology, which is a network of electric connections that targets energy to consumers from the point of power generation, was presented as a possible solution to the storage problem. But the model has yet to be perfected.

Battery technology is also confronting the storage dilemma.

The lithium-air battery, which combines oxygen and lithium ions to create enough energy to power a car for 500 miles, promises to revolutionize electric-car technology. But it not expected to hit roads for a couple of decades, according to Argonne officials. 

“With the technology that is available today, the electrolyte is bleeding out of the cathode, and the battery is not operating at its full capability,” Chamberlain said. 

The metal used as the catalyst, manganese oxide, starts to change after numerous chemical reactions between oxygen and lithium ions take place. This makes the lifespan of the battery unreasonably short. 

Issues with alternative energy also go beyond the laboratories.

Chamberlain said the introduction of new technology to a consumer market is sometimes a fickle process.

“Public acceptance of the technology is important,” he said. “The biggest hurdle is if consumers are ready.”

Despite the difficult road ahead, scientists remain optimistic about the future. 

“The challenge is great,” said Chamberlain. “But the capabilities to do the research exist today. The systems are already in place and we just need more people to join in the research.”

And the scientists were unanimous in their call for future generations to join the campaign for alternative energy. 

“We need to have an educated, motivated group of students who are enthused to solve these problems,” Wasielewski said. “My generation is not likely to solve all of these problems, and if a new group of scientists doesn’t follow, all of our research will be lost.”