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Alexander Orlov

Matt Damon in a scene from ‘The Martian’

By Daniel Dunaief

One of the seminal, and realistic, scenes from the movie “The Martian” involves astronaut Mark Watney, played by Matt Damon, clearing the dust from a solar panel.

The cleaning process not only made it possible for the space station on Mars to continue to generate solar energy, but it also alerted the National Aeronautics and Space Administration staff on Earth to the fact that Watney somehow survived a storm and was alive and stranded on the Red Planet.

Alexander Orlov Photo from SBU

Back in 1967, engineers from NASA proposed a system to remove dust from solar panels, which can deprive space stations of energy and can cause rovers and other distant remotely operated vehicles to stop functioning. Washing these solar cells on dried out planets with water is not an option.

That’s where Alexander Orlov, a Professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering in the College of Engineering and Applied Science, his graduate student Shrish Patel, Victor Veerasamy, Research Professor of Materials Science and Chemical Engineering at Stony Brook University, and Jim Smith, Chief Technology Officer at Bison Technologies and a board member at the Clean Energy Business Incubator Program at SBU, come in.

Working at a company Orlov founded called SuperClean Glass, Orlov, Patel and other colleagues tried to make an original effort started by NASA feasible. The particles have an electric charge. An electric field they created on the solar glass lifts the particles and then throws them away.

The process recently became a finalist in the Department of Energy’s American-Made Solar Prize for 2021. The 10 companies who are finalists get a $100,000 prize and $75,000 in vouchers from the Department of Energy to test their technology.

The DOE will announce two winners in September of 2021, who will each get an additional half a million dollars and $75,000 in vouchers to develop and test their prototypes.

Orlov, who was delighted that this effort received the recognition and the funds, said the company would use the money to develop prototypes and verify that ‘this technology works at the National Renewable Energy Lab.”

SuperClean Glass is creating prototypes of larger scale to show that turning on a power supply will cause dust to levitate and be removed within seconds.

At this point, Orlov estimates that companies can recoup the additional cost of using this technology within four to five years. The average lifespan of a solar panel is about 25 years, which means that companies could increase their energy efficiency for the 20 years after the initial investment in the technology.

Orlov said the current state of the art for cleaning solar panels typically involves using either water, getting people to dust off the surface, or deploying robots.

This device used for experiments is a highly transparent electrodynamic shield deposited on glass to repel dust from solar panels. Image courtesy of SuperClean Glass Inc

In Egypt, where labor costs are lower, companies can pay people to remove dust with brushes. While robots reduce the cost of labor, they are not always efficient and can break down.

Some companies put a coating on the panels that allows rainwater to wash the dust away more easily. That, however, relies on rain, which is scarce in desert conditions.

Orlov originally became involved in trying to develop an alternative to these methods when Sam Aronson, the former director of Brookhaven National Laboratory, contacted him following a visit to the Turkana Basin Institute in Kenya.

When he visited the archeological site in Kenya, Aronson saw that dust frequently reduced the efficiency and effectiveness of the solar panels. The dust problem is not specific to Kenya or the United States, as many of the most attractive sites for solar panels are in regions with considerable sun and little rainfall. The benefit of minimal precipitation is that it provides access to critical sunlight, which generates energy.

The downside of these sites, however, is that the dry, sunny climates often produce dust.

Orlov researched the NASA technology, where he discovered that it wasn’t efficient and couldn’t be scaled up.

Using $150,000 he received from the New York State energy Research and Development Authority, or NYSERDA, Orlov and Patel started reaching out to solar panel manufacturers to determine the price point at which such a dust cleaning removal service might be viable.

“We conducted interviews with 180 people who use solar panels to find out the particular price point where this technology becomes attractive,” Orlov said. That was the steep curve, to do economic analysis, financial projections and to understand what the market wants. All that is not present in [typical] academic research.”

They reduced the power consumption for electrodes by a factor of five. They also explored commercial methods for scaling up their manufacturing approach.

Dust isn’t the same throughout the world, as it is a different color in various areas and has different mineral contents.

“In the future, depending on where this might be deployed, there needs to be some tweaking of this technology,” Orlov said.

As a part of the technology roadmap for the work they are proposing, the SuperClean effort includes a self-monitoring system that would activate the electrodes on the shield if needed to repel an accumulation of dust.

Orlov described the market for such a self-cleaning and efficient process as “very significant.” He is hoping to provide a field demonstration of this approach later this year. If the process continues to produce commercially viable results, they could license the technology within two to three years.

In the near term, Orlov is focused on producing results that could enhance their positioning for the DOE’s grand prize.

“There are a lot of steps before September to be eligible” to win the $500,000, he said. The biggest hurdle at this point is to get positive results from the National Renewable Energy Lab and demonstrate that the technology is effective and also durable.

“Our expectation is that it should last for 25 years, but the lab, which is going to do the testing, is the gold standard to verify that claim,” he said.

Alexander Orlov, right, with former students, Peichuan Shen and Shen Zhao. File photo

By Daniel Dunaief

Alexander Orlov knows first-hand about the benefits and dangers of technology. A native of the Ukraine, Orlov and his family lived close enough to Chernobyl that the 1986 nuclear power plant disaster forced the family to bring a Geiger counter to the supermarket. In his career, the associate professor in the Material Science and Chemical Engineering Department at Stony Brook University has dedicated himself to unlocking energy from alternatives to fossil fuels, while he also seeks to understand the environmental consequences of the release of nanoparticles.

Orlov, who is a member of a US-EU working group on Risk Assessment of Nanomaterials and has served as science adviser to several congressmen, the EU Commission and governments in Europe and Asia, recently spoke with Times Beacon Record News Media about this expanding scientific field.

Alexander Orlov File photo

TBR: Is a big part of what you do understanding the way small particles can help or hurt people and the environment?

Orlov: Yes, we have two lines of research. The first is to make efficient nanoparticles, which can help create sustainable energy by creating energy from water or by taking carbon dioxide, which is greenhouse gas, and converting it into fuel. On the other side, we have a project, which is looking at the dangers of nanoparticles in the environment, because there are more and more products, thousands, which contain nanoparticles. We are trying to understand the mechanism of release of those particles.

TBR: How do you monitor the release of nanomaterials?

Orlov: We use labels, and we track them. If they are released from consumer products, it’s not necessarily that they are immediately dangerous. They can be. We are trying to quantify how much is released.

TBR: How do you determine toxicity?

Orlov: In the scientific arena, there is a qualitative discussion, if chemicals or nanomaterials are released, they will be toxic. That is only the beginning. We need to discuss how much is released. There’s a principal in toxicology that everything is toxic. If you drink too much water, it can be toxic and you can die. Similar [rules] apply for nanomaterials. If there is a little released, the danger might be minimal. If it’s too much, that’s where you might get concerned. [The amount of a nanomaterial released] is often not quantified. That’s what we are trying to do.

TBR: How do you determine what might be toxic over a prolonged period of time?

Orlov: What we have in our studies are determined by funding. Normally, funding for scientific research has a three-year window. The studies have been done over the course of years, but not decades, and so the cumulative exposure is still an open question. Another problem is that different scientific groups study nanomaterials which are not the same. That means there are so many variants. Sometimes, navigating the literature is almost impossible.

TBR: Are the studies on toxicity keeping up with the development of new products?

Orlov: [The technology is] developing so fast. New materials are coming from different labs and have so many potential applications, which are exciting and novel in their properties. People studying safety and toxicity often can’t catch up with what they are studying in their lab.

TBR: Are there efforts to recapture nanomaterials released into the environment?

Orlov: Once released, it’s difficult to recapture. [It’s almost] like air pollution, where as soon as it’s in the atmosphere, it can go anywhere. There are industries that use nanomaterials. Soon, you’ll see 3-D printers in the household; 3-D printers would use polymers and embedded nanomaterials. There are already products like this. The question is how you would minimize consumer exposure. There are several ways: design safer products where nanomaterials aren’t going to be released; apply the standard methods of occupational safety; put equipment in ventilated environment; and you can also try to calculate the exposure.

TBR: Are you monitoring nanomaterials in some of these applications?

Orlov: The research we’ve done demonstrated that, even though you have something in polymer or in consumer products, [there is] still [the] possibility of release of nanomaterials, even though it is considered safe. The polymer itself can degrade.

TBR: Do you have any nanoparticle nightmares?

Orlov: Often, the only nightmares I have is that my understanding of the field is so minuscule given that the field is expanding so fast. The amount of knowledge generated and papers published in this is so vast that no single individual can have a comprehensive knowledge in this field. The only way to address it is to collaborate.

TBR: How is the funding environment?

Orlov: In the United States, there’s a significant amount of funding in both fundamental and applied research, but the policy priorities change in certain areas such as environmental protection, so that affects scientists who are working in the environmental area. I teach environmental classes at Stony Brook. Students ask whether it makes sense to go into environmental protection because of the current funding and general policies.

TBR: What do you advise them to do?

Orlov: I tell them priorities change. At the end of the day, would they like to have clean water and a healthy environment and healthy humans? You can find a niche. It doesn’t make sense to abandon this area.

TBR: You experienced the fallout from Chernobyl firsthand. How often do you think about this?

Orlov: I do think about this often for several reasons. There is an overlap in energy and the environment. This idea that scientific discoveries have positive and negative impacts on humanity came during that time. When I was in the Ukraine and disaster happened, I think about this a lot of times.

TBR: How does a career in science compare to your expectations?

Orlov: My original thinking is that after you get to a certain level, you have a more measured life, in terms of free time and time spent in research. I didn’t realize that the amount of funding or probability of getting funding is becoming very low. When I looked at my colleagues who were scientists 30 years ago, they had a five times higher chance of getting funding compared to right now. Being in science is not as relaxing and it can be stressful and the thing is, if you only focus on getting funding, the creativity can suffer.

TBR: Are there other examples of the dichotomy between scientific promise and destruction?

Orlov: In my introductory lecture to chemical engineers at Stony Brook, one scientist who affected more people than Stalin or Hitler was a German scientist who developed the process of converting nitrogen [gas] to ammonia [which is used for fertilizer]. Half of the population exists because of this scientific discovery. [One of the inventors, Fritz Haber, received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1918 for this work, called the Haber-Bosch process].

TBR: What else did he do?

Orlov: Haber had a dark side to him. He was involved in developing chemical weapons for Germans [which were used during World War I and World War II]. The [extension of his] discoveries killed millions of people [including Haber’s relatives in World War II after he died]. Considered the father of chemical warfare, he developed the process of weaponizing chlorine gas. This is [a way] to discuss the ethics of scientific discovery.

TBR: How would people learn about these examples?

Orlov: Stony Brook and other universities are trying to teach ethics to engineers and scientists because this is a perfect example of the dark side of science and how science and policy overlap.