Australian engineer Professor Stuart Wenham was awarded the IET AF Harvey Prize for his contribution to the development of solar cell technology

Taming hydrogen for better solar cells: IET award winner to speak in London

Professor Stuart Wenham who gained recognition for his work using lasers to reduce cost and improve efficiency of silicon solar cells has arrived to London to introduce his work in a lecture at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

Professor Wenham, from the University of New South Wales, Australia, has been awarded the IET A F Harvey Engineering Research Prize this year, for his contribution to the development of solar energy resources, which is currently the world’s fastest growing industry.

“Our work is pioneering in using lasers in design and fabrication of solar cells. It’s something we have been working on for quite a few years and we have progressively come up with several generations of technology, each one improving on the previous generation of technology,” Professor Wenham said to the E&T in an interview after his arrival to London.

“The most exciting development we have achieved is our latest technology which allows us to use lasers to control charge states of hydrogen and use this hydrogen to correct defects in the silicon material used in solar cells manufacturing.”

The efficiency of silicon solar cells depends on the quality of the silicon material used. However, the purer the silicon, the more expensive it is. And as the cost of silicon makes up the biggest part of the overall cost of solar cells, manufacturers are forced to compromise on the quality of silicon, if they want to remain competitive. However, every impurity and every defect affects the efficiency of the final product.

“That’s were our new technology is very very important because the manufacturers can still use the cheap silicon but they can now use this new technology to use the hydrogen atoms and control the charge state of the hydrogen atoms to fix up all those defects,” said Professor Wenham.

As a result, the final solar cells achieve 23 per cent efficiency – up 4 per cent from what is currently commercially available, and enable cutting production cost by half – a significant improvement that could help reduce barriers for more widespread solar cell deployment.

“We invited the larges solar cell manufacturers to provide us with samples of silicon wafers they are using in making solar cells and we applied our technology to those silicon wafers to show how much we could improve the quality of their silicon wafers,” Professor Wenham explained.

“The companies were impressed by what we could achieve and most of them are now funding our work. So we now have a three-year project to do the full development and optimisation of the technology and so we expect the technology to be commercially available in about three years.”

Professor Wenham, a true solar energy pioneer, set up the first solar panel production line in Australia in the 1980s. Since then, he said, the technology experienced massive growth and is approaching the point when it will become fully competitive with large-scale fossil fuel power installations.

“I believe that in ten years the efficiency improvement and cost decrease will be such that solar cells will be able to compete with large-scale fossil-fuel power generation without any feeding tariffs,” he said.

Professor Wenham’s and his team’s work will benefit from the £300,000 IET's A F Harvey Engineering Research Prize, one of the most generous in the field.

The Australian solar power pioneer will give a lecture at 18:30 GMT on Wednesday at the Royal College of Surgeons in London, which will be available to watch online at http://www.theiet.org/harvey.

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