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Five visions for the future of energy: Science Literacy Week panel

Canada-wide festival started by alumnus partners with U of T’s Science & Engineering Engagement

Ravi Seethapathy, David Zingg, Brandon Sutherland and Aziza Chaouni

Pond-covered parks that foster community while they clean waste water. Airplanes that fly across the ocean in formation like Canada geese. Solar cells that print onto paper as simply as any ink.
Those were just some of the visionary ideas from researchers at the University of Toronto that propelled a lively panel discussion on energy and sustainability at Isabel Bader Theatre on Sept. 24 as part of alumnus Jesse Hildebrand’s programming for Science Literacy Week.
U of T’s Science & Engineering Engagement co-presented the energy discussion panel as well as another on the topic of health and ageing on Sept. 23.

Read more about Jesse Hildebrand and Science Literacy Week

“It still amazes me, the transition we’ve made to recycling,” said panel moderator Ivan Semeniuk, science reporter at the Globe & Mail and a U of T alumnus of astronomy and physics. “If you went back 20 years and showed someone all these bins we have, no one would believe it. But it’s evidence, and so interesting to know, that the culture around sustainability can shift.”
Semeniuk guided the audience through five short presentations and an audience discussion exploring ways our world might begin to make that change again, when it comes to energy sustainability on a larger scale. Speakers included Aziza Chaouni, an associate professor at the John H. Daniels Faculty of Architecture, Landscape, and Design; Ravi Seethapathy, an adjunct professor of electrical and computer engineering; David Zingg, professor and director of the University of Toronto Institute for Aerospace Studies; Brandon Sutherland, a PhD student in The Sargent Group from electrical and computer engineering; and Ron Oberth, president of the Organization of Canadian Nuclear Industries.
The following are a few of U of T researchers’ projections for the next decade in energy.image of panelists
(Clockwise from top left: Seethapathy, Chaouni, Zingg, Semeniuk, Oberth and Sutherland)
Chaouni shared creative models from her research in Morocco and across the Sahara that leverage waste water and storm water for sustainable, multi-use, landscape planning. Think recyclable plastic shells collecting runoff from storms: they can function as urban furniture but also store water for flushing toilets, irrigating landscapes and more. Chaouni said in the next 10 years water-use improvements could include an increase in systems that separate uses for potable water from storm runoff known as ‘grey water’ and from ‘black water’ – a landscape design term for sewage – allowing for drastic increases in potable water conservation. She added that changes towards mist showers, efficient faucets and toilets can also reduce domestic water use by up to 60 per cent.
“In the field of landscape architecture we could also imagine more bio-remediation, where portions of our parks could treat waste water,” said Chaouni. Images of families picnicking in pond-covered desert parks were offered as examples of leisure settings that also perform water treatment functions. “The actual treatment would happen in subterranean wetlands, so in a park you won’t come face to face with the bioremediation process, but you do come face to face with a landscape that allows for it.”
entire panel on stage
Seethapathy shared ideas for energy storage models that break away from the North American preference to own everything – where each house inefficiently powers its own refrigerator, etc. Instead, he offered up visions for systems that leverage community. For example, small rented energy storage cells, or solar units that could power shared assets, such as a refrigerator store where customers rent a shelf.
“Materials, to me, are where the big game changer is going to come,” he said. “In the next 10 years, new materials will take us to the frontiers that we don’t have today. Energy storage will be a big equalizer.”
“Imagine a whole area of resilient sub-stations – a cube wherever needed rather than poles and wires sticking out of the ground,” he said. “That innovation will all come from the materials side, provided the population reduces its energy footprint. That’s where the two sides will have to meet.”
Zingg stressed the importance and the daunting task of reducing CO2 emissions from aircraft – especially as air travel continues to increase. A combination of regulations, economic measures, operations, biofuels and technology can all work together to reach a goal of 50 per cent total reduction by 2050, he said. But it’s going to have to happen fast.
“An airline operates an aircraft for about 30 years, so if we want to make a difference in 2050, we have to make those changes soon,” he said.
Zingg shared innovative models for ultra-efficient aircraft, including the ‘blended wing body,’ which somewhat resembles a flying squirrel, and the ‘double bubble’ which looks like two airplanes combined into one. Operational measures, such as coordinating multiple cross-Atlantic flights to travel in formation much the same way as Canada geese, could result in fuel savings of 15-20 per cent, he said.
“If we rely on the private sector to do this, it won’t happen,” he said. “Airbus and Boeing will incrementally improve but to see real change it has to be the government driving it.”
Zingg stressed that significant government investment in aircraft efficiency is crucial.
Sutherland explained the three leading kinds of solar cells: silicon, perovskites and quantum colloidal dots. That last category is what The Sargent Group is exploring as it continues to publish groundbreaking research.
The cheapest of the three options, colloidal dots are the only ones that can absorb the full spectrum of light, Sutherland said.
He added that while the dots can be difficult to apply on a large scale, simply adding small stickers of them on to other types of solar cells such as silicon, can drastically increase the base cell’s effectiveness.
 “I wouldn’t say we’re entering an entirely solar future,” said Sutherland. “It will be a hybrid future and solar will playing a bigger a part of that.”
He described the simplicity of using solar to supplement other types of power as it can be printed as an ink onto paper or other materials and suggested that the next decade could see lightweight solar cells added to aircraft.