Laureate: Invest in sunlight

The Nation - Wednesday, March 10, 2004

Solar energy is the only sustainable energy source for electricity generation as the traditional means of burning fuel at power stations is accompanied by chemical and radiation contamination of the environment, said Nobel Laureate for Physics Professor Zhores Alferov.

Alferov, who won the prize in 2000, said it was predicted that known oil reserves would be exhausted in 40 to 50 years while it would be 60 to 70 years before natural gas ran out.

Coal supplies could last for another 300 to 400 years, but with considerable environmental impact.

The same is true for nuclear energy, he said, which can last 120 years at a time but with many problems with nuclear waste and the reactors themselves.

“Sunlight is practically an inexhaustible energy source,” said Alferov, during a lecture organised by the International Peace Foundation at Chulalongkorn University yesterday.

“Sunlight is ecologically pure and an accessible energy source with high-energy potential.”

While solar energy is already widely used to supply power to spacecraft, the challenge is to extend it to terrestrial applications to supply autonomous household users and the like, he said.

However, due to its low energy density, the cost of electricity obtained by solar arrays is high and that is the main problem retarding the development of a large-scale solar power industry.

Scientists, including Alferov, are trying to solve the problem of photovoltaic conversion to concentrate sunlight more efficiently, with smaller cells made of new material that can harness more energy more cheaply.

This new type of photosynthesis is being experimented with in many parts of the world, he added, with Japan being at the forefront at this stage.

He said he hoped many more countries would invest in such research.

Although he pointed out that even large oil producers are now big investors in research, the profit motive does not always take long-term interests into consideration.

Even without any technological breakthrough, Alferov said global energy production from solar energy in 2030 would equal today’s total electric consumption in Russia.

Pravit Rojanaphruk

The Nation