Arizona Technology & Innovation: ASU Solar Collaboration

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Arizona State University will lead a new national Engineering Research Center to solve challenges of harnessing solar power in economically and sustainable ways. Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, or QESST, will be directed by Christina Honsberg, a professor in ASU’s School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering.

Ted Simons: Arizona state University is leading a new national research center that looks to receive usize the energy industry. The center is a collaboration of Universities, energy companies, and entrepreneurs committed to solving the challenges of harnessing solar power in economical and viable and sustainable ways. Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies, or QESST, will be directed by Christina Honsberg, a professor in ASU's school of electrical, computer, and energy engineering. I recently talked with her about the project. Thank you so much for joining us.

Christina Honsberg: Thank you for having me.

Ted Simons: What is the goal of this project?

Christina Honsberg: QESST is a new engineering research center that's funded by NSS and the department of energy. And the goal of it is to advance photovoltaics, or solar energy. You'll see solar energy on calculators or on other consumer electronics, and what we want to do is make it not just power calculators, but make it powerhouses, businesses, make it essentially power the U.S.

Ted Simons: Basically make it economically viable.

Christina Honsberg: That's correct.

Ted Simons: And how do you do that?

Christina Honsberg: There are two pronged approach we use. The first is that you have to get the performance up. So the measure of performance for a solar cell is efficiency, and if you make the same block of material produce more power, then you're paying for the material, but you get more energy out of it so costs go down. One of the key focuses we have is to make -- get a double win. You produce more power and lower the cost at the same time.

Ted Simons: And that -- I guess that would slide into also the idea of manufacturing as well.

Christina Honsberg: That's right. There's about 50 companies who are involved with us, and about seven other Universities on the project. And actually the company involved is quite unique. So rather than just having a technology that goes into the lab and then after three years we talk to industry and see if they're interested, industry is involved from the beginning.

Ted Simons: Industry involved right from the beginning, talk more about that public-private partnership and how important that is.

Christina Honsberg: So the industry is growing very rapidly. It's been growing at 40% a year for nearly two decades. And so this gives a very strong opportunity for Universities to get their new technologies out to industry. But the pace of the industry is such that if you've been developing in technology for three years, they've grown 40% for three years. They're already beyond what you may have done. So having a partnership between the two of them is absolutely essential to get the technology to develop rapidly.

Ted Simons: Now, the goal, the majority of new electricity in 10 years. And the idea could be 1.5 billion people being affected by this? That would be another goal?

Christina Honsberg: Yes. So presently 1.5 billion people don't have access to electricity. So our goal is to make solar cells a little like the cell phones. So the people who don't have electricity also generally don't have land lines. But they've actually just completely bypassed land line and are now using cell phones. So for the developing world, rather than putting in the utility grid the way we have here, the goal would be to just go right to solar or right to technologies that are distributed.

Ted Simons: And again, in terms of economic viability, does that make sense?

Christina Honsberg: Yes. Absolutely. Right now it makes sense already in a lot of markets, so the cost of it is actually dependent on where you put it in. The more sun you have the more electricity you have. So it makes more sense to put it into sunnier locations. So in sunny locations with relatively high electricity costs, it already makes viable sense, so there are markets like that in the U.S. Also it always makes economic sense for what's called peaking power, so peaking power is where the utility company charges you more for your power near solar, noon, or near the middle of the day. So it's economic for that as well.

Ted Simons: Without getting too much into particles turn nothing waves and waves turning into particles, I know the quantum mechanics is a part of this particular project.

Christina Honsberg: That's right.

Ted Simons: How?

Christina Honsberg: Actually this is a very interesting part. Maybe a succinct way of saying what we want to do, we want to bring the semi conductor revolution to energy. Quantum mechanics is the basis of computers, of all your cell phones, it's the basis of the information technology revolution. And photovoltaics is actually a very unique energy source. Every other energy source has rotating machinery, but not photovoltaics. You just shine light on it and it generates electricity. So this has a couple implications. No moving parts. We don't use any water, we don't emit any pollutants. So it's a very clean, very long lasting, very distributed technology. I think another implication of it is that the semi conductor industry has grown enormously and has impacted everybody's lives. And we think that the photovoltaic industry can grow as enormously and in 10 years just the same way you see a computer everywhere, a cell phone err where, you'll just see photovoltaics on everybody's house.

Ted Simons: It's like 10 years ago smart phones weren't so smart.

Christina Honsberg: That's right.

Ted Simons: 10 years from now, photovoltaic will be a lot smarter than it is now.

Christina Honsberg: That's right.

Ted Simons: How did ASU get involved?

Christina Honsberg: ASU is a leader in solar energy, particularly in photovoltaics. We have a large set of experimental facilities for it, so it was pretty natural that ASU went and led the engineering research center. And of course we're also very dependent on our partners, so our partners in this are California institute of technology, MiT, University of Delaware, Georgia tech, we've got a bunch of partners. And of course University of Arizona is one of our partners too.

Ted Simons: And the government is interested obviously as well when you mention the -- is this considered vital national interest?

Christina Honsberg: Yes. It's of enormous national interest. Par of it is pure economic interest. This is going to be a trillion dollar industry. Right now Germany and Japan hold the lead in it, but the U.S. is certainly going to be the next big market, and it's absolutely essential that the U.S. grab as much of that trillion dollar market as it can. It's a clean technology, so you can make money, make jobs, and help the environment all at once.

Ted Simons: And you mentioned the University of Delaware among those participating. We were talking beforehand, Delaware is a leader in solar technology.

Christina Honsberg: That's right.

Ted Simons: How did that happen?

Christina Honsberg: They -- I think they've long had strong focus on making chemicals, and a lot of the semi conductors is quite closely related to the chemical industry.

Ted Simons: OK.

Christina Honsberg: I think it's another example of how strength in one industry you can use it to piggyback and to get a leg up on a new industry.

Ted Simons: When Arizonans see a Delaware leading the pack, you wonder what's going on in Arizona? Last question, what is going on here in Arizona?

Christina Honsberg: So the -- we have a very rapidly growing program, we've got a lot of courses on it, so ASU is very heavily involved in it, University of Arizona is heavily involved, and not only the University, but of course solar is the largest U.S. producer, and so they are -- their headquarters are very close to here. They recently installed a new P.V. plant. There's actually several companies that are here, sun tech is another very large manufacturer, they're in the Phoenix area with a production plant. Soy tech is another concentrating manufacturer, they have their major research labs here in addition to them there's a lot of sales offices here. So Arizona is -- has the sunlight, it's a very high-tech city, which is needed for solar, so it's a natural place to have it.

Ted Simons: And it sounds like a project like this can be a good educational tool as well.

Christina Honsberg: Absolutely.

Ted Simons: Very good. Thanks for joining us.

Christina Honsberg: Thank you very much.

Christina Honsberg : Professor in ASU's School of Electrical, Computer and Energy Engineering

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