KAUST: Challenges in solar energy need to be addressed


Saudi Gazette

THE Kingdom is faced with challenges in making use of solar energy that harnesses light and heat from the sun to produce electricity.

In Saudi Arabia, sandy winds can pose as an obstacle to harnessing energy and using solar panels, according to scientists at King Abdullah University for Science and Technology (KAUST) who recently gave a talk to visitors in Thuwal.

Solar photovoltaic (PV) plants can be practically useless from sand impacting their surfaces.

Ways of harnessing energy and utilizing it is still challenging and still needs further research and funding, according to Dr. Najah Ashri, vice president of KAUST, one of the leading research institutes in the world and currently ranked first in citation per faculty in QS World University Ranking.

The university is dedicated to researching ways to find alternative sources of energy, including solar, wind, and geothermal energy, as well as innovating ways to extract oil with high efficiency.

Living and working in the university campus is a rare experience in a country where sustainability and awareness in energy saving remains relatively behind. All the buildings in the campus are built with solar cells that save up to 20 percent of electricity.

Although sunlight is plenty all year round, research is much needed in making use of it as the Kingdom enters a post-oil era.

Times have changed for KAUST since its establishment less than a decade ago. “We are coming across a new generation that wants to work, produce, and looking to make their mark in society to make a difference,” said Dr. Ashri. “From my experience of dealing with students, I see a significant change.”

Research and knowledge building are essential to find solutions to local problems, she added.

Saudis constitute around 35 percent of the total number of students at KAUST. “The larger portion of the student body has to be non-Saudi,” Dr. Ashri said.

“Even in the long-term, the maximum number of Saudis studying at the university will never reach more than 50 percent. The university has to have diversity.

“It’s a main requirement for successful universities around the world. It’s more academically challenging for students from different nationalities and backgrounds to study alongside each other.”

She further said, “The first term is the hardest for Saudis because it takes for them to adapt to a different academic environment with other nationalities and cultures.”

The university will remain to focus only on graduate and postgraduate studies, she added. Bachelor’s programs are challenging and will require many needs to be met, such as mixing of genders in one campus, increasing the academic faculties, and absorbing a larger number of students.

The university has attracted some of the world’s brightest minds and raised its ranking to become one of the leading research institutions worldwide.

One of the reasons it succeeded in inviting some of the renowned scientists and researchers from the West is its state-of-the-art facilities and equipment that are not available in other regions.

The supercomputer Shaheen, for instance, has the ability to forecasts climate change in the region and serve Aramco in exploring advanced methods of extracting oil, among other uses.

The university also has a gifted students program that grants scholarships to students to study in world-class universities abroad.

English remains a barrier separating the KAUST community from the local population, however. Its magazine KAUST Discovery seeks to fill the gap by providing content on the work being done by its researchers.

“We seek to translate our research into Arabic and allow for the general public to understand the scientific content,” says Dr. Ashri. “Our goal is to have high school students dream of learning science and technology and aspire to become researchers, engineers, or scientists.”