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  • $125M US-India Initiative Drives WUSTL Solar Expansion
Jul 2012
ST. LOUIS, July 25, 2012 — As part of the $125 million US-India Initiative for Clean Energy announced this year, engineers at Washington University in St. Louis (WUSTL) will work on low-cost solar cells as well as systems that integrate solar cells with batteries. The technology is designed to help India leapfrog energy production technology, moving directly to solar in areas of the country that have never been electrified.

In 2009, President Barack Obama and China’s president Hu Jintao signed a memorandum of understanding to enhance cooperation on energy, climate change and the environment. They established a US-China Clean Energy Research Center — supported by $150 million in public and private funds disbursed over five years and split evenly between the partners — to facilitate joint research and development of renewable technologies by scientists from both countries.

Initial research priorities include energy-efficient buildings, clean vehicles and advanced coal technology.

Shortly afterward, Obama and India’s prime minister, Manmohan Singh, established a US-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy, creating the US-India Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Center, which is also supported by $150 million in public and private funds.

President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India walking toward the East Room on Nov. 24, 2009. It was during this state visit that they signed a memorandum of understanding to work jointly to accelerate development and deployment of clean energy technologies, to invest in clean energy projects in India, and to take significant actions to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. The leaders also launched an Indo-US Clean Energy and Deployment Initiative that includes a joint research center operating in both the US and India to foster innovation and joint efforts to accelerate deployment of clean energy technologies. (Image: The White House)

India, which draws on coal as heavily as China for its energy needs, decided to concentrate its efforts on three progressive energy strategies: solar energy, energy efficiency of buildings and second-generation biofuels.

In April, the US Department of Energy announced the winners of a competition to define research consortia that will tackle these three technological problems. The winning solar energy consortium, led by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory on the American side and by the Indian Institute of Science-Bangalore on the Indian side, will include WUSTL, which is paired with one of its McDonnell Academy partners, IIT-Bombay.

Both countries are contributing funds toward the three consortia, which have also been asked to find matching corporate funds. Solar cell manufacturer MEMC of St. Louis will be a major contributor.

Altogether, the consortium is expected to receive about $50 million over the next five years, said Dr. Pratim Biswas, chair of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science at WUSTL. This money will be used for research and the deployment of solar systems in India.

WUSTL’s contribution

The university and IIT-Bombay have launched the Solar Energy Research Institute in India and the United States (SERIIUS) to help coordinate a three-pronged research effort.

One endeavor will build on the work done at WUSTL's Photosynthetic Antenna Research Center to study the elegantly arranged proteins that plants use to harvest light and funnel it to reaction centers. The fundamental knowledge gained in understanding how nature harvests light will guide the effort to improve next-generation solar technology.

The consortia will also develop processes for scalable solar cell production at lower costs by switching to materials that are easier and cheaper to process than silicon, such as titanium dioxide. Titanium dioxide can make solar cells that absorb light at a wide range of wavelengths when combined with dyes, quantum dots or nanowires. These dye-sensitized metal-oxide solar cells are not yet as efficient as their silicon counterparts, but they are more affordable to manufacture and process.

The third goal is to find a way to store excess solar energy for use at night or when the sky is overcast, Biswas said. For this approach to be practical, the electricity-generating solar cells must be integrated with batteries to create a “solar system in a box.”

The practical, deployable solar systems might include batteries that have traveled down the value chain; for instance, batteries that no longer hold enough charge to power an electric car in the US could be integrated with photovoltaic systems used in buildings, or shipped to India for off-grid applications, Biswas said.

These recycled batteries could provide energy for the cell phone towers India needs to power transmissions. Currently, most of its cell towers are powered by diesel generators, which are expensive to operate.

Why India?

Biswas is optimistic about the prospects for an energy leapfrog in India because he has witnessed the country skip over the more expensive technologies, such as telephone networks, to newer, less expensive ones, such as cell phones.

When he was growing up in India, it took a long time to get a landline connection. Today, the country has bypassed that system by using cell phones instead. Roughly 960 million cell phones are in use in India, compared with about 330 million in the US.

The cell phone has socially transformed rural India over the past 15 years. Before cell phones were used, India’s poor farmers were forced to take any price they were offered for their crops. Now they can bid up the price and start to keep part of the profit for themselves, rather than passing it to a middleman.

"There are exciting opportunities to explore alternative energy futures in places like India," Biswas said. "Distributed energy production makes more sense in a country not bound by existing grids, which run into stability problems if production is intermittent.

"The collaboration with India gives us the chance to explore solar's potential in a setting where its characteristics are better matched to needs and market demand. Some of the technology that develops in this encouraging environment might then transfer back to us.”

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