Science for You: Solar on the farm

eco farm

Illustration based on iStock and Vecteezy elements.

7/31/2017 |

Can crops and solar panels peacefully coexist? A group of Purdue researchers and students is seeking an answer to that question.

Rakesh Agrawal, the Winthrop E. Stone Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering, is the principal investigator for the $2.5 million Sustainable Food, Energy and Water Systems grant from the National Science Foundation. Florida A&M University is partnering with Purdue on the program.

Current solar photovoltaics, Agrawal says, block the sun from reaching the ground, creating a “land competition scenario” that makes it difficult to use that same land for food planting and electricity cogeneration using photovoltaics.

“What we need is a new design that is not only optimized for electricity production, but also optimized for growing food plants,” he says.

Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is developing low-cost photovoltaic designs to use on farmland.(Photo/College of Engineering)

Because plants only use a portion of the solar light spectrum for growth, it may be possible to design specialized solar photovoltaics that allow the necessary light to pass through to the growing plants underneath. That’s one of the ideas that the researchers and their students will be exploring in this interdisciplinary program incorporating scientific and technical principles from agriculture, engineering and science. The researchers also will look for new installation modules and changes in farm practices to create a “land cooperation,” Agrawal says.

The five-year traineeship program will include up to 48 graduate students from disciplines including agronomy, agricultural and biological engineering, electrical and computer engineering, chemical engineering, materials science and engineering, chemistry and agricultural economics.

The program team is made up of experts from engineering, education and agriculture, including program co-director Mitch Tuinstra, a professor of agronomy.

“As we move into a renewable-powered world, the potential competition for land between growing food and energy production is a key constraint to implementation of new technologies,” Tuinstra says. “This traineeship will prepare students to use multidisciplinary approaches to provide creative solutions to the challenge of sustainable food, water and energy production.”

Writer: Brian L. Huchel,