“Einstein of the solar world”: Remembering UNSW professor Stuart Wenham

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Professor Stuart Wenham – the director of the Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence – died suddenly just before Christmas. Colleagues pay tribute to a pioneering researcher and inventor of solar cell technologies with a wide smile, iconic Aussie accent and unflagging enthusiasm.

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Friends, colleagues and the whole PV world were saddened and shocked to lose Professor Stuart Wenham just before Christmas. Stuart was the Director of the University of NSW world renowned Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence, and a pioneering researcher and inventor of many solar cell technologies.

He was a Fellow of the Academy of Technological Science and Engineering; the Institute of Engineers Australia; and the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, and a recipient of many Australian and international awards.

Wenham was a giant in the solar world, with an amazing legacy of technology, manufacturing innovation and teaching which is changing the world and providing a glimmer of hope in our fight against climate change. No-one who met Stuart will forget his wide smile, iconic Aussie accent or never-say die enthusiasm.

Stuart was born in 1957 to father Russel, an engineer and mother June, a dietician. He grew up in Bexley North as a middle child to older brother David and younger sister Valmai. They say he was good at everything he tried, excelling both academically and at sports and was very competitive!

He started school at Bexley North where he went until chosen to attend an opportunity class at Hurstville primary school. He attended Kingsgrove High School, where in his final year he was Vice Captain and Dux of the school.

The first job he had was as a paper boy. He was also paid to assemble circuit boards for his father during his high school years and assisted with paying his way through university by coaching tennis. He continued to play competitive tennis for much of his life. He met his wife Michelle at the local church youth group and they had 3 children.

At university he studied a combined degree of science and electrical engineering and, being also quite musical, he designed a digital electric keyboard, using algorithms and digital electronics to enable true octaves to be played. On graduating in 1981 with the University Medal in Electrical Engineering, Stuart worked with Dr Bruce Godfrey, to set up Australia’s first – and one of the world’s first – solar cell manufacturing lines for Tideland Energy in Brookvale on Sydney’s northern beaches.

Godfrey had completed his PhD under another Australian solar energy giant, Professor Martin Green, and they were soon making the world’s best commercial cells.  One customer was BP Solar, which bought the company in 1985.

Stuart worked closely with BP Solar during the 1990s as the UNSW buried contact ‘Saturn’ technology was successfully commercialised.  One of the world’s first MW scale PV power plants in Spain used those cells. They, and subsequent UNSW PERC technology, were also used by 3 winning cars competing in the tri-annual World Solar Car challenges.

The buried contact solar cell was awarded the CSIRO Medal for research of commercial significance in 1992 and judged one of the “Top 100 Australian inventions of the 20th century” by the Academy of Technology and Engineering in 2001.

Stuart returned to university and completed his PhD as a part-time student under Martin Green. He went on to collaborate on key research with his former mentor and to earn his own global recognition, inventing or co-inventing eight classes of solar cell technologies that have been licensed to manufacturers around the world which have annual production volumes valued at hundreds of millions of dollars in an industry that is now the world’s fastest-growing in the energy sector. He and Green were jointly awarded the Australia Prize for Science and Technology in 1999.

While still working on his PhD, Stuart worked in the UNSW team developing the world’s first 20% efficient silicon cell, which cemented UNSW’s position as the world leader in the field. From the outset he focused his research on commercialising solar technology – reducing the $/W, pursuing mass production and making PV less sensitive to the purity of silicon.  “Stuart was unique amongst the many researchers with whom I have worked in his prodigious memory, his powers of observation, his ability to see patterns in results eluding most of us and his ability for lateral thinking” says Green.

“Stuart’s vision, ability and also his style were critical to PV moving from MW to GW scale.  Stuart could see what was possible and knew how to do it – a rare skill at a global level. From early in his career, Stuart had a reputation as a brilliant and practical engineer who loved his work and was loved by those who worked with him.

This never changed in the decades to follow. Nothing was too hard or too much trouble for Stuart.  He didn’t change his approach to people depending on who they were. He always had time, always showed interest and was humble and inspiring.” says Tesla Energy Director, Mark Twidell, who worked closely with Wenham at BP Solar, and subsequently on developing an Australian Solar R&D program for the Australian Solar Institute from 2009-2012.

In the early 1990s, Green, Wenham and one of their standout PhD students from China, Shi Zhengrong, developed the thin-film cells CSG (crystalline silicon on glass). When Shi returned to China in 2001, he founded Suntech Power and brought in Wenham as his Chief Technology Officer.

They quickly and radically altered the global solar landscape, using large-scale manufacturing to bring down the cost of producing silicon wafers. In just five years, the cost of making panels dropped by a factor of 10 and Suntech quickly become the world’s largest solar cell manufacturer.

Wenham served part-time at Suntech for over 10 years, spending weeks at a time in Wuxi, a city near Shanghai in eastern China. At one point, he managed 350 scientists and engineers on a range of research and development projects funded by 5% of Suntech’s annual revenues.

“Stuart was an amazing innovator, a considerate friend and a passionate mentor,” recalled Shi, now a Shanghai-based investor and an adjunct professor at UNSW. Shi added that during his time at Suntech, Wenham had helped commercialise high-efficiency silicon solar cell technologies in China, which had led to the “rapid progress of the solar industry over the last 15 years. Stuart will be remembered as a great global solar leader who made solar affordable and accessible to everyone.”

Stuart Wenham enjoying his lecturing

Meanwhile, Stuart was rapidly progressing through academia, appointed as a Lecturer in 1988, Associate Director of the Photovoltaics Special Research Centre in 1991, Senior Lecturer in 1992, Associate Professor in 1995, Professor in 1998, and Scientia Professor and Director of the Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence in 2003.

Stuart was not just a world leading technologist but also a mentor and an enthusiastic teacher. He received the Vice Chancellor’s Award for teaching excellence in 1995 and was the driving force in establishing the world’s first undergraduate PV Engineering Degree in 2000, followed by a Renewable Energy Engineering Degree.  He passed on his passion for using PV to change the world by taking students to remote areas in developing countries to provide electricity for the first time.

The degree programs were awarded a Green Globe Award in 2004 and consistently attract top Australian and international students. Current enrolments are around 500 and many students stay on to undertake higher degree programs. UNSW graduates now dominate the world’s rapidly developing PV sector.

Stuart receiving his 1999 Australia prize from Prime Minister John Howard.

Wenham, (with Green and Watt) was author of the text “Applied Photovoltaics”, one of the best-selling photovoltaics textbooks internationally. It has been translated into several languages and printed in four English Editions. He was also the author (with Dr Anna Bruce) of the “Virtual Production Line” for the manufacturing of screen-printed solar cells.

This package is now being used by several major cell manufacturers for the training of engineers and forms the basis for three of the UNSW engineering courses. It also forms the basis of an internet based course which is used by several other teaching institutions worldwide.

One of Wenham’s latest inventions is the Advanced Hydrogenation technology, which has allowed the lifetime of solar cells to be boosted a hundredfold. The technology, based on the use of lasers to control the charge state of hydrogen atoms within a silicon wafer, was heralded as a “breakthrough for silicon photovoltaics” by the UK Institution of Engineering and Technology when it awarded him the 2013 A.F. Harvey Engineering Prize. Eight industry partners have already signed agreements with UNSW to use Wenham’s technology in their production lines.

Another of Wenham’s many legacies will be the Solar Industrial Research Facility (SIRF) at UNSW’s Kensington campus, a specially designed $30 million solar research R&D centre. SIRF seeks to commercialise the state-of-the-art manufacture of cheap, more efficient solar cells worldwide by taking laboratory-scale solar technology and developing it for use in commercial manufacturing lines – bringing UNSW’s world-leading solar technology to industry partners globally.

Just before his death, Wenham and the UNSW team won over $13M million in grants from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) to further improve world-record commercial solar cells. His daughter Alison is among the investigators on the projects.

His legacy will live on, not only through the dominance of PV technology in coming decades, but also through the many people who have been lucky enough to study and work with him, and the future generations of students who will benefit from the courses he established.

“His influence as an Australian engineer on the world’s transition to renewable energy was considerable” said Prof Mark Hoffman, UNSW’s Dean of Engineering. “In an incredible career spanning more than a quarter century, he invented or co-invented suites of solar cell technologies that have been licensed to solar cell makers around the world and have had a major impact on renewable energy generation. Stuart Wenham will be remembered for his selfless and continuous efforts to make the world a better place to live”.

UNSW colleague Matt Edwards summed up his close friend;

“He is the Einstein of the solar world and it’s hard to put into words his contribution to the planet. Holding the PV efficiency world record for decades, responsible for taking solar from the lab to large scale manufacture and minting the first billion dollar solar company, taking students to Nepal and Nicaragua to set up solar for communities in need of clean water and power, wrote fundamental solar textbooks, started the first and still only specialized photovoltaic degree in the world, has UNSW graduates in management positions at pretty much every major solar company globally- you name it Stuey had a hand in it.

He successfully raised and led many millions of dollars of grant funded research projects and won pretty much every award under the sun except the Nobel, which I wouldn’t have been surprised to see heading his way if he were still here. If you never heard of him, it was because he was the most unassuming man you could meet – known and loved for his Crocodile Dundee persona – Stuey loved to party and embodied UNSW’s renowned crazy energy. He was always there front and centre and was a big reason UNSW PV is such a fun place to work”.

“Stuart would have contributed much more but what he has already done will stand the test of time.  When the world looks back in 100 years on how PV became a TW technology, Stuart will be remembered as a key contributor – in the same way we look at James Watt or William Rankine today and their influence on steam as the major technology for electricity generation last century” said Mark Twidell.

Stuart is survived by his partner Ran Chen, his three children Alison, Paul and Laura, his ex-wife Michelle, and his siblings David and Valmai.

A funeral and memorial service was held on Monday 8 January 2018, at the Sir John Clancy Auditorium at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.  Over 800 people from around the world attended, including many of his former students and members of his Illawong Uniting Church congregation, who sang at the service. For those who were unable to attend, you may be interested to watch the service on You Tube “Celebration of Stuart Ross Wenham”:  https://youtu.be/v71YPv1bMFQ

What a wonderful, supportive, enthusiastic, positive man he was. He will be so sadly missed.

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