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Michael Valerino, winner of the 2021 Clean Energy Prize, is a PhD student in civil and environmental engineering whose interdisciplinary team is developing an interactive, data-driven platform to reduce solar energy losses caused by dust. Here, he shares insights about this project’s path, what motivates him, and what sets Duke apart.

How would you describe your path to this project?

This project has provided me an amazing opportunity at the intersect of air pollution and renewable energy. My advisor (Dr. Mike Bergin) and I always envisioned a push towards providing a tangible resource to help the global solar industry overcome the challenge of soiling. The last few years, the work has really been research based—developing low cost sensors, international field studies, and learning as much as possible about the science behind the issue. Now, it feels like all of that is really coming together in an exciting way.

Your team includes faculty (Mike Bergin of the Pratt School of Engineering and Drew Shindell of the Nicholas School of the Environment), undergraduate engineering students (Alexandra Rivera E’23 and Jessica Wey E’23), and alumnus Joshua Miller (E’15, T’15) of Syngenta. How have the diverse backgrounds and experiences of your teammates informed your work?

This project would not even be possible if it were approached from just one angle. Getting to collaborate closely with environmental engineers, climate scientists, computer scientists, electrical engineers, and economists has been my favorite part of this project. There is so much that I have learned from this interdisciplinary team, and it is inspiring how the expertise of each person contributes to the evolution of the work.  

How has being at Duke impacted your work? Beyond your team, what people and/or programs have been most influential?

In choosing a program for my PhD, one of things that stood out most with Duke was that sense of teamwork. There can be a negative stigma in academia of the research happening in a bubble, but this has not been the case here at all. The connections, resources, and teammates I have had are what has made this project successful. In addition, we have some fantastic collaborators around the world. Working across international borders, and some inconvenient time zones, our partners at other universities have been instrumental in allowing this to happen, and I am very grateful for their work and expertise.

What’s a significant obstacle you’ve faced in your work, and how did you address it?

We are very fortunate to have clean air here in Durham, but this has been a challenge for this project. All the field studies have had to happen abroad. While it has been a privilege to travel as part of the research, it has also taken a lot of careful planning. Communication and teamwork across international collaborations have been something I have learned a lot about navigating. Covid has added another piece to this, and we have had to adjust how research equipment was set up and maintained. Careful documentation, clear expectations from all parties, reoccurring meetings, and organized data-sharing have been key.

What motivates you? What is your ultimate vision for this project?

As an avid outdoorsman and lover of nature, I have always wanted to use science and engineering as a tool to benefit the environment. Air pollution is such a threat to our ecosystems, health, and while often overlooked – our renewable energy future. The motivation for this has always been to help solar energy providers operate as efficiently as possible while also maximizing the economic incentive of this rapidly growing industry. Providing a tool that can do all of this is the ultimate vision. I could not want anything more from my work!

Further Reading

On Duke Engineering’s “Rate of Change” podcast, Michael Valerino and Mike Bergin discuss their work minimizing air pollution’s impact on solar energy production.

Read about how the team has used Duke’s Shared Materials Instrumentation Facility to help improve solar panel efficiency.