by Christian Edwards
SYDNEY, Jan. 29 (Xinhua) -- The race to catch China's groundbreaking solar energy research just got a lot hotter, with a team from the University of New South Wales (UNSW) in Sydney, this week taking out the global industry equivalent of the Oscars.
Professor Stuart Wenham and his team at the UNSW, were already flying close to the sun in May last year, when they discovered hydrogen atoms could counter defects in silicon cells within solar panels, delivering improvements in photovoltaic panel design that had not been expected for another decade.
The process makes cheap silicon "better than the best-quality material," according to the head of UNSW's photovoltaics (PV) center of excellence, Professor Stuart Wenham. This garnered his team the 560,000 AU dollar A. F. Harvey Engineering Research Prize from the Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET).
IET President Barry Brooks said that Professor Wenham and his team played a pivotal role in the wide scale development of silicon solar cell technology.
"His pioneering research and internationally recognized leadership in the field have enabled commercial exploitation of the technology for the benefit of the global community seeking renewable energy solutions at affordable prices," Brooks said.
"He is a truly deserving recipient of the IET A. F. Harvey Engineering Prize and an inspiration to all engineers."
As a result of the Wenham's hydrogenation process, ordinary silicon can achieve astonishingly high-performance equivalent to high-purity, commercial grade silicon.
Cell performance can be raised "to make it just as good as if they'd used very expensive material," Wenham told Xinhua.
Already worth about 100 billion AU dollars a year, the solar industry is expected to swell to about 140 billion AU dollars by 2018, according to estimates published last year by Transparency Market Research.
Installed PV capacity likely topped 100 GW, worldwide, in the March 2013 quarter, according to the International Energy Agency.
But the race to capture the power of the sun already has a clear leader.
China alone has over 400 PV companies. In 2012 China installed 5 GW of solar panel capacity. By 2012 8.3 GW of photovoltaics contribute towards power generation in China, Australia by comparison has an installed capacity of 2.4 GW.
Some forecast project global capacity will more than triple by the end of the decade.
At present, the best commercial solar cells convert between 17 percent and 19 percent of the sun's energy into electricity.
UNSW's technique, patented this year, should produce efficiencies of between 21 percent and 23 percent.
"This has really got the industry very excited, not only in China, but elsewhere as well," said Richard Corkish, head of the university's School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering. Alumni of the school hold senior positions at many of the leading PV producers globally.
Separately, the UNSW's Martin Green, dubbed the "father of photovoltaics" for his work to develop and commercialize silicon solar cell technologies, was last week elected into the UK's renowned Royal Society.
Professor Green, whose work includes overseeing research teams and setting the current 25 percent conversion efficiency record for solar PV, joins 1,450 of the world's top scientists as a Royal Society Fellow.
Six solar PV companies have signed up as industry partners with UNSW, including China Sunergy last week, and the number is likely to double, Professor Wenham said.
UNSW's labs set the record for PV cells in 2008, achieving 25 percent efficiency. Martin Green, director of the university's Center for Advanced Photovoltaics, said the school's researchers were working to get 30 percent efficiency by stacking cells made from materials that could use a wider range of the solar spectrum.
"Silicon cells convert red sunlight very efficiently but the blue and green sunlight less efficiently," Professor Green said. " We think ultimately something like 40 percent might be achievable by this stacking approach," he said, adding that such performance "might come within the decade."
"The industry will eventually get there," Professor Green said. "We're just trying to accelerate the time it would otherwise have taken."
Meanwhile, the UNSW team have promised to make good while the sun shines.
"The prize money is going to be very valuable for us," Professor Wenham said. "We're going to use that to expand one of the research areas that actually contributed to winning us the prize."
"Our UNSW team is now working with the world's biggest solar manufacturers through collaborative agreements with NewSouth Innovations to commercialize this low-cost technology," said Professor Wenham, who acknowledged the Australian Renewable Energy Agency's funding support for the project, which is expected to be completed in 2016.
Based in Sydney's conveniently sunny eastern suburbs, UNSW has more than 600 students currently studying PV courses and was the first University in the world to offer undergraduate degrees in PV.