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SERIIUS - Leading the world into a solar-energy-based future

The sun sustains all life on earth. But did you know that we are nowhere near utilising all that the sun has got to offer us? Its abundant energy has the potential to fulfil all the burgeoning energy requirements of humankind. In fact, the amount of solar energy that falls on the earth in one hour is enough to fuel the energy needs of the entire planet for more than a year!

Over the millennia, we have discovered several ways to tap solar energy. Recently, technological advancements have enabled relatively efficient utilisation of solar energy. Yet, there are several issues that hold back solar energy from becoming our one-stop energy source. Its cost, for instance, remains higher than that of fossil fuels. Besides, there are technical difficulties in the large-scale implementation of solar technology, which are yet to be overcome.

One such project working on developing cutting-edge technology that can overcome these difficulties, is the Solar Energy Research Institute for India and U.S. (SERIIUS.) The story of SERIIUS started in 2009, when U.S. President Barack Obama and the then Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, launched the U.S.-India Partnership to Advance Clean Energy (PACE) to deal with climate change, energy security and to build an economy based on clean energy. As part of PACE, the Indo-US Joint Clean Energy Research and Development Centre (JCERDC) was established in 2010, with funding of $125 million over 5 years. The idea of JCERDC was to promote innovations in clean energy in the fields of solar energy, second generation bio-fuels, and energy efficiency in buildings. This was to be achieved by teams consisting of scientists and engineers from India and the U.S.

JCERDC awarded three consortia projects in 2012, and SERIIUS is one of them, and the largest of the three. SERIIUS is co-led by the Indian Institute of Science (IISc) Bangalore, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) at Golden, Colorado. SERIIUS has a large number of academic institutions, research laboratories and industries as partners, both in India and the U.S.

Along with utilising the expertise of researchers from both countries for the project, one of the main elements of this project is to engage Indian and U.S. industries that are committed to the field of solar energy. In this way, it intends to bridge the gap between fundamental and applied science.

The intention of SERIIUS is also to aid in the long-term success of the Government of India's Jawaharlal Nehru National Solar Mission, which targets 20,000 MW of grid-connected solar power by 2022. It could also go a long way in enabling the success of the U.S. Department of Energy's Sun Shot Initiative, which is a collaborative effort to bring down the costs of solar energy, so that they can be cost-competitive with other forms of electricity by the end of the current decade.

SERIIUS works mainly in three thrust areas: photovoltaics, concentrated solar power and solar energy integration.

Sustainable Photovoltaics

When sunlight falls on certain materials like silicon, they emit electrons. This property forms the basis of the photovoltaic cell used to produce electricity from solar energy. The idea is to use materials that are abundantly available on earth, and use green processes and new techniques of manufacturing to produce photovoltaics (PV). This approach is necessary both for bringing costs down, and for deploying photovoltaic systems across India. The long-term aim is to accelerate the development of cutting-edge PV technology and to build a foundation for a future PV industry.

Concentrated Solar Power (CSP)

In CSP systems, large amounts of sunlight are concentrated into a small area by using lenses and mirrors; the concentrated light is converted to heat, which in turn drives a steam turbine that is connected to a power generator.

Large-scale CSP plants are more efficient than small-scale ones. But in order for wide deployment, smaller plants are necessary, because they are easier to distribute and install. SERIIUS conducts research into finding alternate processes that work better with smaller plants, to increase the efficiency of the system and bring down costs.

Solar Energy Integration (SEI)

One of the keys to successfully using solar energy is to integrate it with the current electric grid. This involves a thorough understanding of resources, infrastructure, policies, regulations and markets, so that a road-map can be drawn up to determine how this can be approached. The other issue is that of storing solar energy, so that energy can be drawn from it whenever necessary. And this storage system needs to be cost-effective.

This project was discussed during the recent meeting between Barack Obama and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and there was a commitment to renew the partnership for a further five years.

Since the involvement of the industry is one of the main elements of this project how has it influenced the work of SERIIUS? Dr Pradip Dutta, the Chairperson of the Mechanical Engineering Department at IISc Bangalore, the Managing Deputy Director of SERIIUS in India, and the CSP Thrust Leader, says that industry participation forms the main backbone of some of the SERIIUS projects, and that a significant percentage of the cost share comes from industries. He says, "Prominent Indian industries include BHEL, Thermax, HPCL and Moser Baer. In CSP thrust, already innovation-based prototypes of components have been developed under academia-industry partnership by BHEL and Thermax, while a new high temperature thermic fluid is developed by HPCL. These new prototypes/materials are now being tested."

Is there anything that could potentially hinder the achievement of SERIIUS's goals? Says Dr Dutta, "At present, SERIIUS comes under the PACE-R programme, in which the major goal is to develop technology at the fundamental level and developing proof-of-concept prototypes. These goals come with certain performance targets to be met. For deployment, there is another India-US bilateral programme called PACE-D. Ideally, the technologies developed at the PACE-R level need to be scaled up to the deployment level, which requires a separate effort and funding level. The consortium, however, feels that more interface between PACE-R and PACE-D is required."

One of the most distinguishing aspects of SERIIUS is its sheer size. In the words of Dr Dutta, "The major challenge is that it is an extremely complex program because of technological diversity, geographical separations, research population, and project/task/milestone quantity. By the numbers, there are 2 Countries on 2 Continents, 3 Research Thrusts, 20 Projects, 37 Tasks, 100 Milestones and nearly 200 researchers." But thanks to a robust management structure and good coordination by the SERIIUS Leadership Team, it has been operating without any hitches.

A solar-energy-based future looks promising and exciting, and with its innovative and groundbreaking research, SERIIUS promises to be right in the front, leading us into that future.


Contact: Dr Pradip Dutta.


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