2022 Karl Böer solar awards
Photos by Evan Krape May 06, 2022
Vasilis Fthenakis and Anke Weidenkaff honored for research on solar energy
Advances in solar energy research are making the sun’s vast resources more available and affordable than ever before.
But during a special visit to the University of Delaware on Tuesday, May 3, two leaders in sustainable energy research underscored the urgent need for making the environmental impact of all such advances a top priority.
Vasilis Fthenakis of Columbia University and Anke Weidenkaff of the Technical University of Darmstadt, Germany, were at UD for the 2022 Karl W. Böer awards, recognizing leadership in sustainable energy, especially solar energy.
Fthenakis, an expert in large-scale deployment of solar power and the founding director of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis at Columbia, received the 15th Karl Böer Solar Energy Medal of Merit. The medal comes with a $100,000 prize.
Weidenkaff, executive director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Materials Recycling and Resource Strategies (IWKS) and a professor at the Technical University of Darmstadt, received the first Karl Böer Renewable Energy Mid-Career Award. The award comes with a $25,000 prize.
Böer, who died in 2018, was a pioneer in solar energy, an expert in thin-film photovoltaics and founder of UD’s Institute of Energy Conversion, which marks its 50th anniversary this year and is the longest continuously operating solar research facility in the world.
“His leadership continues to shape research, scholarship and innovation in the field of solar energy worldwide,” UD President Dennis Assanis said during the awards ceremony at UD’s Science Technology and Advanced Research (STAR) campus. “And thanks to the IEC, UD’s reputation for solar energy research continues to attract top students in engineering and the sciences, educating the next generation of researchers and innovators who are working toward a carbon-free future.”
In a presentation after receiving the Böer medal, Fthenakis quoted from an interview Böer gave on the future of solar energy.
“We want our children to live better,” Böer said. “We have grandchildren and I want them to be able to look up to us later and say ‘We are proud of what you did.’”
Fthenakis said such goals motivate many.
“I feel this emotion,” he said. “We have grandchildren, too. I share this vision with a lot of you.”
Those grandchildren and all who follow them will need a healthy planet. This one is under extraordinary stress from environmental exploitation, changing climate and ongoing threats to land and water resources.
“A safe operating space for humans is already damaged,” said Weidenkaff, an expert in materials science. “We have to act fast…. Healthy human beings can only exist on a healthy planet. Damaging the planet damages human health.”
This reality must be reflected in research and development, Weidenkaff said, even at the expense of performance.
So-called “forever chemicals” — the manmade, fluorinated chemicals known as PFAS that have caused health concerns after showing up in blood samples of many Americans — are an example of why such careful deliberation is essential, she said.
“We need materials, but that has consequences sometimes,” she said.
With many calling for the “electrification of everything” to eliminate dependency on fossil fuels, these considerations are critical.
“The ‘electrification of everything’ needs a lot of batteries,” she said. “That needs a lot of water and resources to mine. And this changes nature.”
Replacing diesel and gasoline vehicles with electric vehicles requires many new resources. Problems of recycling are evident around the world, as electronics and plastics and other wastes pile up.
“But we have to think about what we are doing,” Weidenkaff said. “We are changing the face of nature. We need resources for the chemical industry, but we have to make sure we keep the world and planet healthy.”
New technologies often follow material discoveries, she said.
“As chemists, we take substances and mix them,” she said. “This is a linearity we learned. But we should not only aim for higher and better performance. We must also aim for sustainability.”
Instead of a linear approach that looks only forward, a circular approach considers waste materials, recycling, regeneration and sustainable replacement.
“We have to rethink this completely,” Weidenkaff said, “and start to make materials out of waste. My whole life I have been working on substitute materials. But sustainability has to be considered in the first minute of material design.”
Asked whether PFAS are part of solar modules, Weidenkaff said: “Who knows? Even producers don’t know anymore. And our mobile phones, magnets, batteries — do we know what is in our products? We don’t know what producers are using and they don’t want to give that information to the competition.”
But tracking those elements is an important part of developing a circular economy and keeping important materials in useful cycles and out of landfills, she said.
Thinking ahead this way is a challenge.
“We have to make sure from the beginning that the substitution will not damage the future,” she said. “Even as a chemist it is hard to understand what will be a problem in 50 years.”
Fthenakis said the environmental impacts of solar generation are low compared to other technologies.
“There is a great distinction when you compare this with coal and gas,” he said. “We don’t expect a lot more from them.”
But there are important questions to ask about the lifecycle of all materials — and the end stage is only part of that.
“What if you have photovoltaics on the roof and the house catches on fire?” he said.
What if a giant solar farm is installed on land that once was used for crops? How does that affect farming? How does that affect land-use decisions and public policy?
Fthenakis’ work focuses on energy systems analysis, especially the environmental impacts of materials, processes and products throughout their life cycles. Solving the energy problem makes it possible to address many other problems, he said.
Solar-based desalination projects that remove salts and other contaminants from water, for example, are expanding and expected to play a much bigger role as climate change further drains already depleted water resources around the world.
“Solar takes the price down,” Fthenakis said. “Even the Saudis are projecting desalination based on solar now.”
Providing renewable energy in sustainable ways was a focus of Böer’s work and remains the mission of IEC, which he founded in 1972. IEC approaches its mission from many angles — from fundamental research to industrial application and public policy.
The awards endowed in Böer’s name are meant to recognize leaders in that comprehensive effort and encourage others to strive for such advances.
“Karl would have been very proud of the award recipients today,” said Renate Böer, his widow. “I’m glad we’re still able to participate. It’s nice to see again the community of solar scientists and solar friends who are here.”
After the presentations, IEC celebrated its 50th year with presentations by William Shafarman IEC director and professor of materials science and engineering, Lenny Tinker of the Department of Energy and Steven Hegedus, senior scientist at IEC and professor of electrical and computer engineering.
“It was quite an honor to be able to welcome two such distinguished scientists to UD and to learn about sustainability from their experiences and insights,” Shafarman said. “And to combine that with our own celebration of IEC's 50th anniversary made for a really special afternoon.”
The Award Committee is composed of the presidents of the International Solar Energy Society, the American Solar Energy Society, the American Institute of Chemical Engineers, the American Physical Society, the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers, the director of the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, the U.S. Secretary of Energy, or their designated representatives, a representative of the Böer family and the executive director of the Karl W. Böer Solar Energy Medal of Merit Award Trust.
Böer Solar Energy Medal of Merit winners
1993: President Jimmy Carter, for spurring development and focusing world attention on the relatively unknown technology for safe and environmentally sound energy production from the sun.
1995: David E. Carlson, for the discovery and commercial development of thin film amorphous silicon cells for converting sunlight to electrical energy.
1997: Adolf Goetzberger, for his leadership in the international solar energy community, his research accomplishments and for founding the eminent Fraunhofer Institute for Solar Energy Systems.
1999: Stanford R. Ovshinsky, for pioneering the science of amorphous semiconductors resulting in the development of low-cost, thin-film silicon solar cells.
2001: Allen M. Barnett, for his pioneering high-performance, thin-crystalline silicon solar cells and outstanding continuing service to the solar electric power community.
2003: Martin A. Green, for his innovative research efforts in the development of high-performance crystalline silicon solar cell technology.
2005: Yoshihiro Hamakawa, for his significant pioneering contributions to the development of high-efficiency, thin-film solar cells and the advancement of solar photovoltaic science and technology as a clean energy source.
2007: Lawrence Kazmerski, for his leadership in the field of solar electricity from its infancy.
2009: Hermann Scheer, for his long-lasting and worldwide commitment to the dissemination of solar energy.
2011: Richard M. Swanson, for his innovation in the field of photovoltaics and for his tenure as president of SunPower Corp.
2013: Zhores I. Alferov and Viacheslav M. Andreev, for their contributions to the investigation and development of semiconductor device technology and physics, which have led to greater performance and efficiency of solar cells and arrays.
2015: Antonio Luque, for inventing the intermediate brand solar cell, which raises the efficiency limit from 41% to 63%.
2016: D. Yogi Goswami, for his work to improve efficiency in the storage of solar energy and his quest to use solar energy as a catalyst to address environmental problems.
2018: Alex Zunger, for new theories to improve the performance of solar devices and unconventional approaches to finding new materials to power solar technology.
2020: No award
2022: Vasilis Fthenakis, for pioneering research at the interface of energy and that environment that provided the underpinning of energy lifecycle impacts and catalyzed photovoltaic technology advancement and deployment worldwide.
Böer Renewable Energy Mid-Career Award
2022: Anke Weidenkaff, for visionary leadership in renewable energy and sustainability technologies, with seminal contributions to materials for solar fuels, thermoelectric converters, catalysts and self-regenerative functionalities.