UNSW ‘green’ thin-film solar researcher awarded PM’s prize for science

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One of Australia’s leading solar researchers has been recognised for their contributions to environmentally friendly thin-film solar technologies, taking out one of the 2020 Prime Minister’s prizes for science.

University of New South Wales’ scientia associate professor Xiaojing Hao has received the 2020 Malcolm McIntosh Prize for Physical Scientist of the Year, as part the PM’s science prizes after leading research into a new material, sulphide kesterite, which has shown significant promise for use in the production of environmentally friendly thin-film solar panels.

UNSW associate professor Hao completed her PhD at the University of New South Wales in 2010, and her subsequent research has focused on the development of sustainable solar panel technologies, which use materials that are naturally abundant and do not produce any toxic by-products.

The sulphide kesterite materials that have been the focus of Hao’s research is earth-abundant and non-toxic, and has already been used in the production of thin-film solar panels by UNSW with a world record conversion efficiency of 11 per cent using abundant materials.

While the material has yet to demonstrate the same level of conversion efficiency achievable in commercially available silicon based solar cells, the thin-film solar cells produced using sulphide kesterite have the potential to be used in a wider range of applications, as the thin film solar cells were lighter and substantially more flexible than traditional solar cells.

“We have seen the deployment of solar cells for the use in solar farms and in rooftop solar, but we think we can do a lot more by integrating solar cells into the surfaces of materials, including in the surfaces of buildings, or even electric vehicles,” associate professor Hao told RenewEconomy.

“Doing this allows us to maximise the use of solar cells in all aspects of our lives and in doing so we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.”

Associate professor Hao said that the thin film solar cells had already been integrated into materials like stainless  steel, glass and flexible plastics, as have shown the potential to be used to directly power devices like drones.

Thin film solar cells can also be ‘stacked’ on top of traditional silicon cells to produce ‘tandem’ solar cells with even higher conversion efficiency, exceeding 30 per cent, without substantially increasing their cost.

Associate Professor Hao’s research has seen her become recognised as one of the world’s leading thin film solar cell researchers and said that an ambition to invent new technologies that could help the environment was a key motivation for joining the field of science.

“I am motivated by the desire to create and live in a more efficient and convenient world. From a very young age, I always felt there was a smarter and easier way to do things. I wanted to be an innovator and a detective – so I became a scientist,” associate professor Hao added.

“The purpose of my work is to squeeze more electricity out of sunlight, using thin-film solar cell technologies. One of my main desires is to create ‘green’ solar cells out of materials that are not scarce or toxic. This will reduce our greenhouse gas emissions and result in a better, cleaner life for us and our planet.”

The Malcolm McIntosh Prize is named for the former head of the CSIRO and comes with a $50,000 cash prize for the winner.

Associate Professor Hao added that the PM’s science prize would be considered a win for UNSW’s solar research teams, which have been at the forefront of international research across multiple solar power technologies for several decades

“I love research because I am a curious seeker of the truth. I love diagnosing problems, collecting data and analysing it – just like a detective would do. I enjoy not only the exciting moment of discovery in solar cell technologies, but also the process of working in collaboration with my team,” Hao said.

“I am honoured to be recognised in the Prime Minister’s Prizes for Science. It is recognition not only for my work, but for my group’s work at UNSW. It is great to be able to put a spotlight on our research and promote our achievements.”

Hao’s prize was not the only one recognised through the 2020 PM’s science prizes that involved solar power, with Western Australian high school teacher Darren Hamley awarded the 2020 Prime Minister’s Prize for Excellence in Science Teaching in Secondary Schools, for leading the Willetton Senior High School’s teaching of science, including overseeing student participation in the school’s solar car club.

Hamley oversaw the school’s participation in the World Solar Challenge, a 3,000km race for solar cars between Darwin and Adelaide that attracts involvement from some of the world’s leading research institutions.

The Willetton Senior High School solar car (supplied).

“One of my most significant achievements has been the solar car program. A group of students built what we believe is the first fully-licensed, zero-emission car in Australia. We’ve driven the solar car for thousands of kilometres, from Darwin to Adelaide and across 1,000km sections of the Nullarbor. My ultimate aim is to drive all the way from Perth to Canberra,” Hamley said.

The top prize, the 2020 Prime Minister’s Prize for Science, was shared by four physicists, professors David Blair, David McClelland, Susan Scott and Peter Veitch, for their work on the detection of gravitational waves.

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