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‘Sri Lankan geology allows hydro and solar power to be used in conjunction



Interview with CBE awardee Prof Ravi Silva

By Sajitha Prematunge

Every hour the Earth’s atmosphere receives enough solar radiation to meet electricity needs of every human being on Earth for a year. Consequently, the world’s greatest problem can be fixed with just one percent of solar radiation the earth receives. The catch? It’s exorbitant. Fulfilling energy needs has remained an insurmountable challenge for centuries as this huge influx of solar energy is wasted for want of a cost effective way of harnessing solar energy, at least until researchers, the likes of Prof Ravi Silva can fix it. Imagine a technology that would enable printing of solar cells using a process similar to that of printing a newspaper. It would enable production of square kilometres of organic solar cells at a fraction of the current cost, theoretically. This is the kind of cutting-edge technology Silva and his ilk are involved in. Following is an exclusive interview with recent CBE awardee Prof Ravi Silva.



UK-based scientist of Sri Lankan origin and Surrey University Advanced Technology Institute (ATI) Director, Professor Ravi Silva was recently awarded a CBE or Commander of the Order of the British Empire, one of the highest ranking Orders of the British Empire award, for his services to Science, Education and Research over the last three decades.

Silva joined the Cambridge University Engineering Department for his undergraduate and postgraduate work, immediately after his secondary education in Sri Lanka. He joined Surrey in 1995. He was one of the key investigators for the £10m ATI, established in 2002 with the hopes of bringing all solid state electronics and photonics research at Surrey into a dedicated institute. Silva has been its director of since 2005 and also heads the Nano-Electronics Centre (NEC), an interdisciplinary research activity. He helped set up one of the largest carbon nanotechnology laboratories at Surrey.

In 2013 he was elected a Distinguished Professor at Chonbuk National University and in 2016 a Visiting Professorship at Dalian Technology University, China. In April 2017 he was appointed Honarary Director to the Zengzhou Materials Genome Institute (ZMGI), China. In March 2018, he was elected joint Editor-in-Chief of Wiley’s Energy and Environmental Materials. More recently, he has set up the £4m industry-academia Nano-Manufacturing Centre and in 2019 the £1m Marcus Lee Printable Solar Cell Facility.

His research has resulted in over 620 presentations at international conferences, and over 600 journal papers, with circa 21,000 citations and won grants of over £30m over the last two decades. In 2002 he was awarded the Charles Vernon Boys Medal by the Institute of Physics, and in 2003 the IEE Achievement Award. The same year he was awarded the Albert Einstein Silver Medal and Javed Husain Prize by UNESCO for contributions to electronic devices. In 2003 the largest EPSRC Portfolio of £6.68M was awarded to Silva and his team on Integrated Electronics which examined nanoscale design features on the optical and photonic device properties. In 2004, SRIF award for £4M, to set up a Nano-Electronics Centre for multidisciplinary research, was awarded to Silva.

He was awarded the Royal Society Clifford Patterson Award for 2011. In 2014, he was awarded a premium medal by the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET), the JJ Thompson Medal for contributions to Electrical and Electronic Engineering. In 2015, he won the Institute of Materials, Minerals & Mining (IOM3) premium award, the Platinum Medal for contributing to materials science, technology and industry. In 2016 he won the Government of Sri Lanka Presidential Award in recognition for many contributions in the field of nanotechnology.

Since 2005 he has worked with the National Science Foundation (NSF), Sri Lanka to develop nanotechnology as a vehicle to generate wealth and alleviate poverty in the country. Silva was on the advisory board of Imprimatur Ltd and the National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) of Sri Lanka. He was an Advisor to the Minister of Science and Technology in Sri Lanka, and helped set up the Sri Lanka Institute of NanoTechnology (SLINTec) and the Nano-Science Park NANCO (private) Ltd in 2008. He currently acts as an advisor to both these entities and sits on the director board. He has acted as advisor to many national and international organisations, including US, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Indian, Sri Lankan, Singaporean, Saudi Arabian, Israeli, Hong Kong, Portuguese, Canadian, Brazilian and European governments.

His research interests encompass a wide range of activities with a focus in nanotechnology and renewables. Other fields of interest include electronic devices, sensors and X-ray detectors. “The area that is most significant at present is how to keep our planet safe for the next generation,” said Silva. He explained that climate change is an existential threat for humans, and we must reduce our carbon emissions. He pointed out that the best route to do so is with replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy. Much of his research at present looks at the fabrication and manufacture of new and cheap solar cells, together with battery storage that can act as an integrated solution to green energy provision.


Which of your research has been put to best practical use, in your opinion?


There are a number of areas in which research conducted within my group has been put to good use. In the field of electronics, it is very difficult to pinpoint precisely where your devices are used as there are many thousands of devices and inventions in even basic consumer electronic systems. For example, patents from our group have been licensed to companies such as Philips, BAE systems, Airbus, Bombardier, Surrey Nano Systems and Silver Ray and they form components of a bigger system or application. The most obvious example of Nanotechnology developed in the group was in the winter Olympics at PyeongChang where the Hyundai Pavilion was covered with Vanta Black, the blackest man-made material in the world. This was also demonstrated through the paint on the BMW X6 model, ‘VBX6’ at the Frankfurt Motor show. These materials originated from research in my labs at Surrey.

Q: What are the contributions solar energy can make to drive the world to a carbon net zero position?


Solar energy is crucial if the world is to go to a net carbon zero position. Typically, the Earth gets enough energy from the sun in one hour to power the entire population of earth for one year. Therefore, the current 80 percent use of fossil fuels to power the world must be decreased significantly in the next 50 years, to be replaced by green energy. In developed countries such as Germany there are predictions which show solar energy would make up 80 percent of the total energy use in 2100. This is simply due to the overwhelming evidence that points to these sources as the most appropriate green energy provider.

Q: Why are governments reluctant to commit fully to solar power?


At present the cost of solar and the inbuilt infrastructure available for fossil fuels makes governments reluctant to examine other sources. The local energy generation and transmission system will need to be overhauled and new investments made in energy, supply, transmission, storage and distribution.

Q: What can Sri Lanka do to popularise renewable energy?


Sri Lanka’s renewable energy efforts are mostly ad-hoc and requires coherent policy and planning. Education on the advantages of renewable energy and how it can be implemented can help. At present, should a full cost analysis be performed on solar energy, it will come up as the most cost-efficient energy provision available in countries such as Sri Lanka.

Q: How do you manage higher efficiency solar energy technology, while maintaining lower cost?


The cost of solar energy provision has been coming down exponentially. If we take one of the measures to judge the cost of solar electricity, cost per Watt, in 1970 this was an eye watering US$74 per Watt. This dropped to below US$ 10 in 1990 and today this is below US$ 20 cents per Watt. The Obama regime ran the Sun Shot Challenge to push the cost of solar electricity below US$ 1 per Watt, as this was when it became competitive with fossils. We are well below that now, and the cost keeps getting lower. Current 450W solar modules can be obtained highly competitively below US 150 if it is bought in bulk.

Q: Yet you have admitted that energy is one thing that has defied all economic models, including the axiom of Supply and Demand. Why have solar energy expenses kept rising rather than coming down, with technological development?


Adam Smith said supply and demand should dictate cost. In solar there is 10,000 times over supply of energy. The problem is the cost of solar cells. We are looking to reduce this with sprayable solar cells. But even today the cost of solar for large solar farms can be well below 10 cents US$, if the infrastructure is provided for the investment to take place. For example in India large solar farms have been set up with costs as low as US$ 4 cents per kilowatt hour with the number below US$ 2cents in Mexico. There is no reason to believe we cannot have similar low-cost solar electricity in Sri Lanka.

Q: What are energy cost drivers, and do they apply to the World Energy provision and by extension to Sri Lanka?


Ease of production of energy, raw material provision and the infrastructure dictates the final costs. There is no reason to believe we cannot provide the raw materials needed, when this happens to be sun light. Furthermore, with the enviable hill country with hydroelectricity provision we have a ready-made battery to store energy with pumped hydro.

Q: Do you mean hydropower can be used in conjunction as a storage technology, to store solar energy during off peak hours or during the day and discharge it by night?


Absolutely. Nature has blessed Sri Lanka with some wonderful geology to allow for this to be done at scale. The NSF and universities should be looking to build on this to provide the country with the ideal solutions to their energy needs. Pumped hydro can be used to store hydro-energy when there is too much electricity produced by solar energy, so it can be used in the nights. The 40 percent hydro-provision is near ideal to ensure base load needs are met, for the rest of the energy to come from solar and wind. I am also sure there will be large scale battery provisions coming soon, with companies such as Tesla and 8minutes already demonstrating this.

Q: What are smart grids and its benefits?


If renewable energies are to contribute to nations energy provision, they need to be able to interface well with the current energy provision and transmission. In particular for solar and wind-based energy to feed-into the national grid, a robust energy network with smart grid provision will help. Smart grids also allow for smaller local networks to provide renewable energy in an efficient manner, having appropriate interfacing with the on-grid supply and often back-up energy storage provision.

Q: What obstacles delay power generation sectors from adopting smart grids?


The singular obstacle is inertia and sticking to old infrastructure, without looking to plan ahead for future energy provision.


What are polymer cells or organic photovoltaics, and their benefits.

A: In the future, using polymer technology, we can produce solar cells with 15 percent efficiency at a fraction the cost of silicon solar cells. This is driven primarily by the very much lower material cost, together with the thousand-fold decrease in active materials used to make solar cells. By adding nanoparticles into the polymer solar cells you can improve the efficiency even further and thereby give better energy per cost. Under these circumstances the energy payback time is below six months.

Q: What is carbon electronics? And what are its applications for a developing country like Sri Lanka?


Carbon electronics uses the element C for the fabrication of electronic devices. Nano-carbons such as graphene, carbon nanotubes and polymers are becoming more important on a daily basis to provide solutions in electronics, energy and structural materials.

For Sri Lanka, it can make a huge difference. Particularly when some of the highest quality graphene can be produced with the vein graphite available in the country. This can not only be used for next generation electronic devices, but also for lighting and even electrodes for batteries. Companies such as Ceylon Graphene Ltd. have been established in the Sri Lanka Institute of Nanotechnology (SLINTEC) to provide just this impetus to the national innovation eco-system.

Q: Where does carbon electronics factor in, solar energy generation?


Polymer based carbons, particularly if mixed with nanomaterials can be used for next generation solar cells. Only a fraction of the material needed in Silicon solar cells, to produce high quality modules, is required when polymer based carbons are used as active materials.

Q: What are carbon electronics’ other benefits?


We can also use the nano-carbon materials to make major components of the battery, such as its electrodes. So, not only energy scavenging, carbon electronics can also help in energy storage.

Q: What are the benefits of unlimited energy?


Some say there is a significant correlation between national development and energy use per capita. The worlds most developed countries also have the highest per capita use of energy.

If we had unlimited energy, the world would be a very different place. With unlimited energy we can wipe out the poverty gaps between the nations; there will be enough energy to provide clean water to all using desalination technologies; we can wipe out famine with food crops grown under ideal conditions; we can ensure maximum energy is focussed on new drugs, vaccines and highly nutritious foods.

Q: What is your opinion on research culture in Sri Lanka Universities?


Sri Lanka universities have high quality researchers, but less provision for them to be able to fully exploit their prowess to help the nation or have an enterprise culture to contribute to society. A step change is needed to motivate researchers to help elevate the country’s science and technology base with their efforts. High quality research should also be given fast track promotion within the sector.


In a technological perspective which areas are viable for expansion and which are not, for a country like Sri Lanka?


Sri Lanka needs to motivate and energise the younger generation to contribute fully to the nation. Training in enterprise and spinouts should be made available with suitable grants for technologists to develop their inventions and products. The eco-system for entrepreneurship should be developed, with the universities taking a lead by example, on how they can value add to Sri Lankan raw materials and technologies. In the fields of nanotechnology, energy, materials, AI and new technologies they have much to offer.



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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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