UNSW says Australia could be Silicon Valley of solar R&D

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UNSW – after winning award for Pluto solar cell technology – says Australia has unique opportunity to capture huge R&D market in solar PV.

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Australia has the opportunity of creating a mini “Silicon Valley” for solar research, but only if it can seize the moment, according to Dr Richard Corkish, the head of the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering at UNSW.

Corkish says Australia is in a unique position to capitalise on its expertise in slar PV. “We have global leadership in the silicon solar cells. We don’t have many areas where we can claim that, but we won’t have this opportunity for ever.

Corkish was speaking after UNSW won a 2012 Collaborative Innovation Award at the Cooperative Research Centres Association conference in Adelaide for its work on the Pluto solar cell technology.

The development of Pluto has been led by Professors Stuart Wenham and Martin Green at UNSW in close collaboration with Suntech, the world’s largest solar cell manufacturer, which is headed by a former UNSW researcher, and Australian citizen, Dr Zhengrong Shi. Funding has been provided by the Australian Solar Institute.

The Pluto technology is based on the UNSW-developed PERL cell, which in 2008 set the world-record for performance with 25 per cent efficiency. It recently set a new world record for conversion efficiency for commercial wafers, of 20.3 per cent, which RenewEconomy reported in a world exclusive in March Suntech sets solar cell efficiency record.

The Pluto cell, which features a unique texturing process that improves sunlight absorption, even in conditions of low and indirect light, resulting in higher efficiency, is more economically viable to produce on a large scale.

“We recently broke through the 20 per cent target for solar cell efficiency, which many experts thought was impossible and we’ve significantly lowered the costs compared to other technologies,” says Professor Green.

“While many photovoltaic researchers around the world are focused on the holy grail of higher and higher efficiencies, we believe Pluto technology has struck the ideal balance between conversion efficiency and manufacturing costs to create a truly viable alternative for electricity production.”

Wenham said that as the Pluto technology is refined and the conversion efficiency further increased, “we have no doubt that it will capture an increasing share of the global solar market.”

Corkish, who spoke to RenewEconomy on Wednesday from Shanghai, said the global market for solar PV was massive and would grow phenomenally in coming years.

“I am at a conference in Shanghai and each time I come here I am blown away about how much bigger it was than the year before,” he said. “There is a lot of big money in solar PV and other places want to grab that opportunity. I fear that we are going to let it slip.

“The utcome I’d like to see is bunch of world scale solar PV manufacturers gathered about us in Sydney. We not going to have mega (solar PV manufacturing) factories in Australia but why on earth wouldn’t we have the research centres. We can be a little silicon valley in an area of huge potential.”

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