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Advancing Sustainability Across Disciplines with ChE's Agrawal

by William Schmitt

In May 2020, “Sounds Like the Future” features an interview with Rakesh Agrawal, PhD, the Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering in the Davidson School of Chemical Engineering.

Agrawal discusses principal interests that have driven his research during the 15 years since he left the corporate world for academia.

From his first days on Purdue’s College of Engineering faculty, he has shown a zeal to contribute to energy sustainability for the future. This passion has taken him into multidisciplinary collaborations extending far beyond chemical engineering.

His pursuit of renewable energy has translated into enthusiasm for developing low-cost, high-efficiency solar cells — through printing with light-sensitive ink composed of unique nanocrystals. Intensive work at the world-class laboratory of the Rakesh Agrawal Research Group has yielded cells with approximately 15 percent efficiency so far, and these efforts continue toward the goal of 20 percent efficiency.
As an offshoot of his work on capturing the sun’s energy, Agrawal more recently started researching technologies for growing food at the same time in the same spaces. This facilitates the human race’s shift from fossil energy to solar resources without disruptive competition for land. Agrawal’s team has built its first plant on agricultural land owned by Purdue, and data on combined food and solar-power production are being collected.

The combination of research on sustainable food, energy, and water systems is called SFEWS. Agrawal says he has found abundant support among faculty and administration at Purdue for this collaborative research involving broad areas of know-how in multiple types of engineering, agriculture, economics, business and more.

The interdisciplinarity of this SFEWS work — and the need to educate generations of engineering talent ready for such broad collaborations —have  helped Agrawal receive support from the National Science Foundation’s Research Traineeship (NRT) and Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy, and Water Systems (INFEWS) programs.

Agrawal and collaborators across Purdue have been developing multidisciplinary courses attracting diverse groups of students under NSF training grants for studies in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Those students have impressed Agrawal by forming cohesive groups. He says they want to shape a brighter future and cooperate with one another as they tackle their own specialized tasks.

The professor’s third principal area of research interest dates to his days as a chemical engineer in the corporate sector. He is pleased that his efforts to increase the energy efficiency of processes to separate products at petroleum and chemical plants have continued to yield exciting results.

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Purdue College of Engineering