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Career planning: Renewable energy field has great potential for jobs of the future

The solar sector has grown 30% to become a $100-billion-a-year industry. Solar is moving 1% of global electricity demands. One hundred years from now, there will be no fossil fuels left

education Updated: Jun 13, 2017 17:56 IST
Renewable energy is a huge and growing area.
Renewable energy is a huge and growing area. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Ted Sargent is an award-winning professor of nanotechnology, a renowned author, and University of Toronto’s (UofT) vice president global. He talks to the Hindustan Times about emerging careers in nanotechnology, engineering and renewable energy science.

Why is renewable energy a good field to get into?

Renewable energy is a huge and growing area. Ten years ago solar was called alternative but we don’t call it that anymore. The solar sector has grown 30% to become a $100-billion-a-year industry. Solar is moving 1% of our global electricity demands. One hundred years from now, there will be no fossil fuels left. All of our energy needs will be met through other sources. This will be big business.

Will enough jobs be generated in this area?

Yes, it will be a huge sector for employment, from innovation to practical engineering to big business in leading solar projects. It will be a whole ecosystem of its own.

Solar energy is the only new form of energy arriving on earth each day. As economies continue to grow, individuals will become more affluent and consume more energy. The only way to meet the demand is through new sources of energy such as solar.

What led you to nanotechnology?

I was involved in the early days building the lasers that are the basis of the optical internet.

The long-haul part of internet is powered by fibre optic communications. There is a laser at one end, and a light sensor at other end. The laser beam shines light down a fibre optic cable.

The fibre optic cable signal from the laser can go thousands of kilometres. Part of the work there was to make better lasers, that are very bright and energy-efficient. The nanotechology bit is to get just the right wavelengths to make sandwiches of semiconductors where the bread is a few nanometres thick and the ham is a few nanometers thick. It’s so thin that it is actually on the scale of electron wavelengths.

When you take a sandwich and put electrons inside and you make it bigger or smaller you change the energy level of the electron. It allows you to hit just the right wavelength.

How did you start doing research in renewable energy?

I became passionate about using math/ physics/ chemistry to address electricity problems. I wanted to make solar cells that are efficient, but cheaper and physically flexible. Cells that you can stick on the top of a car or building. So we looked at making materials from chemistry that are liquid and can be sprayed onto almost anything. It was interesting to make solar cells that are more lightweight and more readily deployed. You can roll out and stick them on cars.

Our goal was to convert sunlight into electricity to make next-generation solar cells so we move from thick solar panels to decals that we can put on the side of streetcars that can power a car, a battery, or even a personal device.

What else are you working on?

The world’s progress in solar electricity has been phenomenal. Solar is getting cheaper and cheaper. The day will come when we have more solar electricity supply than demand.

So we need to figure out how to store it so we can use it later.

In Canada and India there are times of day and year where you have a lot of sunlight and not a lot of electricity demand, but then overnight, you need electricity for your air conditioning, but there is no sun.

My research group are now pursuing a solution to this grand challenge: How do we combine evermore abundant renewable energy with increasingly present CO2 in order to synthesise renewable fuels and renewable chemicals?

Challenges?

The problem has captured the imagination of researchers from many fields. One core challenge is to make new catalysts – materials that can be reused, and then use electrons from a solar cell to strip off the oxygen molecules from CO2, and couple the carbons together to make hydrocarbons. But this means delivering rare CO2 to these catalysts with ever-increasing efficiency. This calls on engineers who specialise in fluids, gases, and their flows to join forces with chemists and physicists that design new catalysts.

How did you first get interested in engineering?

I really loved physics and math when I was a high school student. We used to have competitions to see who could build a car out of balsa wood and wheels and graphite that would race down a hill the fastest. I did this with my cub scout troop. I was really passionate about applying physics and math towards designing new things.

What traits do students need to excel in the sciences?

In high school, I was good and did well but I wasn’t top of my class. I realised that being good or very good at science and engineering was essential but to really excel as a professor or researcher or entrepreneur other things mattered too. This would be the ability to communicate, write, network, talk to people in other fields. These are competitive advantages. Your ability to differentiate yourself have components of social sciences and humanities.

How did you develop this side of yourself?

In high school, I did parliamentary debating, competitive debating. I participated in debates in French and English. This was excellent preparation for the job of professor, as well as vice president and company starter.