We discuss the need to develop our usage of sustainable and green energy in promoting sustainability.
Rising cost of living. Surging fuel prices. Shortage of food worldwide. The world is truly experiencing a global energy crisis like no other and yet, the world continues to demand more energy due to rapid development and industrialisation as well as a growing population despite depleting energy sources.
By now, it’s a no-brainer as to what our focus needs to be on to tackle this issue — sustainable energy.
There’s no argument. Sustainability is one of the most important factors in improving and preserving the quality of our lives now and also our future across the world.
With our natural resources depleting, there remains an ever-growing need to continuously innovate ways we can fully utilise sustainable and green energy.
But are we doing enough to ensure we’re maximising the best we can? Do we need to compromise comfort for a better future?
Associate Professor. Ts. Dr. Chockalingam Aravind from Taylor’s School of Engineering shares his different research projects on fully harvesting and utilising sustainable and green energy as well as the different ways we can practice sustainability.
A: If you think about natural resources used globally, you’d often think about energy being harnessed from the sun or from the wind. With that said, energy from the sun is seen as a wider choice due to it being constant and continuously available during the day compared to wind energy, which is highly inconsistent and not constantly available for a fixed period — basically, you can’t really predict the movement of the wind as easily.
What makes harvesting wind energy even more challenging is the available speed of the wind flow is well below what is essential, making it difficult to even move the wind blades which is possibly caused by the mechanical inertia of the system. That’s why you rarely see wind turbine technology less exploited in countries with low wind speed, like Malaysia, in comparison with countries like Spain, with a whopping 27GW of installed wind energy capacity for example.
But, what we wanted to do is to break away from that mindset and see how we can actually utilise this underappreciated source by tackling the problem we can influence — the weight of the turbine!
That’s how we came about with one of our award-winning projects: Gyro Vertical Axis Wind Turbine (G-VAWT).
What we did was identify the hurdles faced by wind energy technologies which include the inconsistency of wind flow being a continuous motion, the varying wind velocity and not having a constant speed, and the operational wind band. So this project basically addresses these issues in a single design by having smaller units of turbine instead of one big unit.
A model of the Gyro Vertical Axis Wind Turbine (G-VAWT).
To simplify, what’s unique is that the speed of the three units can be synchronised with a smaller unit of the motor drive, which results in the speed of the three-unit turbine being constant and minimises the energy conversion stage required in a conventional system.
A: Another area we looked at was the dark side of solar panels. One question that we worked towards was, “Is it possible to generate energy whether it’s rain or shine?”
Adding to that, Malaysia is famous for its hot and rainy weather so coming up with a solution that allowed us to see and understand how we can make solar panels work more efficiently was a no-brainer.
With that our project, ‘A Hybrid Solar Energy Harvester’ was born. The project focused on creating another layer using materials that are able to retain the energy when force falls on it while, simultaneously, continuing to harvest the sun’s light and heat.
For example, when it rains, it’ll create a small oscillation which then creates voltage and energy. Based on what we’ve produced, I’m proud to say that our small-scale project could actually light up a street lamp!
A model of the Hybrid Solar Energy Harvester that utilises 'Rain or Shine' solar panels.
A: All these projects mentioned focused very heavily on SDG 7 which ensures access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy for all. Ultimately, whatever we use, we make sure that we’re practising a clean energy approach.
At the lab, we try our best to ensure that the materials we use are sustainable or refurbished from other items. We usually try to avoid projects that use items that aren’t sustainable. That’s the first important part I tell my students.
One of our projects, which focused on solar energy and won a silver award in the Indonesia Inventors Day 2021, used a refurbished abandoned satellite dish so it could be a receiver of the energy from the sun.
But sometimes that doesn’t work out so we also encourage them to see if the items can be refurbished or repurposed for something else or utilise materials that don’t cause harm to the environment.
The refurbished ASTRO dish that harvests solar energy.
A: There’s definitely a gap between here and pushing this out. The projects that we have here are done at a small-scale so upsizing it will cost us about three to four times more than our usual cost and it’s something we can’t afford. Ideally, this would be picked up and funded by someone from the industry.
To fix this, we’re working closely with the identified industry player and reaching out to our knowledge transformation unit to assist us towards adoption through their IGNITE10 funding. Currently, two of our works are done through this to materialise these solutions to the market.
A: Honestly, it’s the everyday things. For the hybrid solar panels, it was from watching the speed of rain falling on the car’s windows in our car park.
The double-funded G-VAWT replicated the inside out of the fidget spinner principles by putting together gyroscope motion mathematics. I remember having a bit of trouble with the model of the wind turbine, but I was inspired when I saw my daughter playing with a fidget spinner.
So everyday things really do give us new ideas and solutions. You just have to be crazy enough to be an engineer, see things in a different light, and experiment.
I remember when I brought the fidget spinner-inspired idea to my supervisor, he said it was near impossible, but for me, it was an exciting opportunity to challenge the hypothesis it was built on. That small spark pushed me, even more, to think out of the box when finding a solution.
A: It’s important to see what’s happening around you. Take into consideration what you’re doing and how its impact can significantly contribute to the particular SDGs that will give positive results to local communities. As engineers, we must remember to connect with the communities because that’s what we all aim to do — to improve the livelihoods of our community.
Another thing that I do is to bring my students to competitions, meet new people, and see what other people are doing to help. Go out with your projects and win awards to help build your confidence in what you’re doing as well!
A: As an energy solution thinker, this was a big opportunity for me to contribute to society and I felt that becoming a professional engineer allowed me to take on that responsibility and give back to society in a larger capacity. Even though pursuing electrical engineering was by chance, it became a personal purpose to ensure that our source of energy gets more appreciation, that we can leave something for our future, and being an electrical engineer helps that.
A: Sustainability is often misused as a marketing tool to motivate you to purchase products. In actuality, you don’t have to put in a lot of money to be sustainable because it’s very straightforward and simple — all you really need is to start at home.
Start small by separating your rubbish, cleaning your air-con filters, or even practising carpooling if it’s along the way. Even relooking at your spending habits would help. Try asking yourself questions like what happens when you throw them away? Could it potentially harm the environment? What’s the end-life cycle and is it possible to replace parts instead? This will definitely help you in the long run.
In the past, it may be difficult to balance our comfort level and take care of our energy and environment because we weren’t as technologically advanced and our focus was on putting food on the table. But now that we’ve enough money to buy these things and the technology for them, we now need to make more informed decisions and choose things that are both energy saving yet still meet our comfort levels.
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