Vasilis Fthenakis Awarded DOE Grant; Honored with 2018 Cherry Award; Publishes Books

Jul 05 2018 | By Holly Evarts | Photo courtesy of Angus Rockett/Colorado School of Mines

Vasilis Fthenakis MS’78, senior research scientist and adjunct professor in the department of earth and environmental engineering, has had a busy June. His project was one of 14 to recently win a grant from the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) to advance solar-thermal desalination technologies. His proposal, which received $1.2 million over three years, is focused on developing software that will enable a comparative evaluation of solar thermal desalination technology options and use geospatial data layers to identify regions of high-potential for solar thermal desalination. His goal is to simplify the planning, design, and valuation of solar thermal and solar hybrid desalination systems in the U.S. and worldwide.

“This new award is bringing Columbia Engineering into the forefront of the global renewable energy desalination R&D,” says Fthenakis, who is the founder of the Center for Life Cycle Analysis (CLCA) at Columbia and also senior scientist emeritus at Brookhaven Lab, which he joined in 1980. “Arid areas are becoming more dry, and by 2035 a projected 47% of the world’s population will experience water scarcity. Solar-enabled desalination is a viable and affordable solution for these areas as they enjoy a strong solar resource.”

Recent cost reductions and technological advances of solar energy systems have created opportunities for developing low-cost and emission-free desalination technologies. However, using solar in desalination requires resolving the challenge of solar resource variability and this is an area of active investigation in Fthenakis’ Center for Life Cycle Analysis. Fthenakis hopes that his new DOE project will enable market transformation and penetration of solar desalination by 1) bridging the gap in expertise between energy and desalination/water treatment professionals; 2) informing how solar thermal desalination can be implemented to facilitate concentrate management of existing facilities, in addition to new facility designs; and 3) enabling comparisons between solar thermal desalination options and membrane-based options.

Vasilis Fthenakis gives a keynote speech at the World Conference on Photovoltaic Energy Conversion, where he received the 2018 IEEE William Cherry Award.

Earlier this June, Fthenakis was presented with the 2018 William R. Cherry Award from the Institute of Electrical & Electronics Engineers (IEEE). Named in honor of William R. Cherry, a founder of the photovoltaic community, this prestigious award recognized Fthenakis’ “pioneering research at the interface of energy and the environment that catalyzed photovoltaic technology advancement and deployment world-wide.” He was honored at a dinner on June 12, during the 7th World Conference on Photovoltaic Energy Conversion (WCPEC-7) in Waikoloa, Hawaii.

"Vasilis Fthenakis is truly unique for his leadership, team building skills, demonstrated talent for applying scientific principles to real world challenges, as well as establishing practical environmental benchmarks essential for expanding adoption of PV as a cost effective electric power resource,” says Charles Gay, Director of the Solar Energy Technologies Office within DOE's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy and one of the ten authorities who endorsed Fthenakis' nomination for this award. “Vasilis has had a firsthand role in the rising role of clean energy technology commercialization for his entire professional career and is an inspiration to the best and brightest we wish to see enter the field of photovoltaics."

Vasilis Fthenakis holding his 2018 William R. Cherry Award, with Alexandre Freundlich, WCPEC-7 chair and professor at the University of Houston.

In addition, at WCPEC-7, Wiley introduced the second edition of a textbook by Fthenakis and Lynn, Electricity from Sunlight: Photovoltaic-Systems Integration and Sustainability. Praised for its visual appeal, conversational style, and clear explanation of complex ideas with minimal mathematics, Electricity from Sunlight reflects advances in the global PV market, economics, and installed capacity. Also in June, Elsevier published a book co-edited by Fthenakis: Solar Energy Systems. He is also the editor of two books on Life Cycle Analysis, a book on Third Generation Photovoltaics, and author or co-author of about 400 scientific articles and reports.

Fthenakis, who joined Columbia in 2006 in a joint appointment with Brookhaven National Laboratory, is a worldwide leader in the analysis of life-cycle issues in renewable energy applications, with seminal contributions in photovoltaics and the environment. He is recognized in particular for his efforts calling for research on the environmental effects of the production of photovoltaic technologies, including the effects of cadmium and lead used in photovoltaic materials and solders, and for promoting recycling strategies within the industry.

He also created and led multi-country collaborations supported by the U.S. Department of Energy and the International Energy Agency. In fall 2015 he co-founded the Global Clean Water Desalination Alliance (GCWDA) which was launched during the COP21 Paris with support from the governments of the United Arab Emirates and France. He serves on the board of GCWDA directors and, with his CLCA team, is currently leading GCWDA efforts to integrate PV with desalination making it both clean and affordable.