Martin Green spearheads a research team at the University of New South Wales that is set to revolutionise the global energy industry. Their research on solar cells has already had wide-reaching success thanks to their international links which have turned Australian technological smarts into a manufacturing reality.
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Australia has a great many scientific superstars, if only we were more aware of them. There was Henry Sutton, who invented television in Ballarat, Victoria, in the 1880s; there was Lawrence Hargrave of Stanwell Park, New South Wales, whose box kites influenced the Wright Brothers’ design for the first plane; there was Lawrence Bragg of Adelaide, the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize (he invented two new fields: X-ray crystallography and molecular biology); Florey and penicillin, Burnet and immunology, Eccles on how nerves work, Elizabeth Blackburn and her Nobel Prize–winning research that deals with the ageing process … the list goes on.
But, if they are ‘superstars’ why aren’t they more famous? You could ask the same question about Professor Martin Green. He is tall, dark and handsome and I’ve seen him pick up more awards than swimming champion Ian Thorpe – in fact his only rivals in that regard in science are Ian Frazer of Gardasil fame (the vaccine against herpes and cervical cancer) and Fiona Wood known for her spray-on skin to treat burns victims.
Green and I shared a table years ago when he picked up a Clunies Ross Award (1994) for his record-breaking research on solar cells and since then I have seen him win Eureka Prizes (latterly for leadership) as well as the Australia Prize in 1999 (now the Prime Minister’s Prize for Science) and the inaugural NSW Scientist of the Year Award in 2010. Add another twenty or so medals and you’ve got the picture.
Green believes that Australia has advantages that will enable it to build on its reputation as the photovoltaic technology and educational hub for the Asia-Pacific region.
The idea that sunlight could be converted to electricity goes back to Henri Becquerel in the 19th century. Einstein’s Nobel Prize–winning understanding of the photoelectric effect then gave a theoretical underpinning to the field. In 1940, at Bell Labs the first semi-conductors were developed, a crucial ingredient, but it was not until 1954 that the first solar cell was produced. Expense and the low efficiency of conversion meant that its use was restricted to spacecraft.
Then the race was on. It has been called the equivalent of the Four Minute Mile: to convert 20 per cent of sunlight to electricity. If the efficiency of silicon-based cells could be improved then a real commercial opportunity beckoned. Enter Green and his team at the University of New South Wales (UNSW). They have held the world record for solar cells since the mid 1980s. It is now over 28 per cent.
Already the industry is worth billions of dollars – and likely even to become trillions if certain forecasts come true. In May 2012, for example, US Energy Secretary and physics Nobel Prize winner Steven Chu said, “Some things happened so rapidly that nobody anticipated them. For example, the price of photovoltaics (PV) dropped 80 per cent, recently, and then 40 per cent in another year.”
Green was not so surprised. Neither is Ray Kurzweil, the famed futurologist. I saw him at a conference in Boston, backed by a committee of the American Academy of Engineering, as he likened solar technology to Moore’s Law applied to computing. Just as Moore insists that computing power doubles while costs are cut by half every year, so solar cells, now also based on information technology, will follow suit. And the result? Kurzweil told us that solar could supply 100 per cent of our energy needs by 2020. No-one blinked. If he’s even half right (very likely) the pay-off could be colossal, in both social and financial terms.
In 2012, 31 years after the UNSW team established the first solar cell production line in Australia, they are linked to companies across the world, at least 30 – in the USA, the Philippines, Malaysia, China, Germany, Taiwan, Korea, Norway, France and Singapore.
How did this continuing, record-breaking stream of innovation come to be? Well, first, you need to recruit and maintain the A-team. Green and his partner in scientific leadership Dr Stuart Wenham (co-winner of the Australia Prize), attracted a remarkable group of young engineers and scientists and let them explore new ways of solving the problem of making the silicon cells work better, such as by burying the contacts beneath the surface and using thin films.
One of these bright young sparks is Dr Nicole Kuepper, herself winner of the Eureka Prize (twice!). She is keen to have affordable solar technology designed for the poorer villages of developing countries where the use of kerosene for lighting and cooking is estimated to kill at least two million people a year. Cheap solar lamps based on printed cells and, eventually, even cooking stoves, will revolutionise the lives of two billion people across Africa, Asia and South America.
The more developed countries, such as Germany, are incorporating the thin-film cells into buildings and we look forward to the day when the very walls and windows, let alone the roofs of houses and offices, will be sources of power.
Green reflects on how this international success came about: “BP [British Petroleum] was the first to use our technology in a big way. BP developed a buried contact production sequence in Sydney in the late 1980s, then transferred this to their manufacturing facility in Spain. Roughly $1 billion of cells were made under licence before ceasing production circa 2006.”
This has been the pattern, and the key to success for Green and the Institute: build internationally. It is the fundamental message coming from the Australian Academy of Science in a meeting I chaired at the University of Melbourne on 30 March 2012 which the President, Professor Suzanne Cory, our latest Nobel Laureate, Professor Brian Schmidt and many other leading scientists insisted that international links are the essence of Australia’s success and that the example of Suntech and the relationship with Dr Shi and UNSW is compelling. Professor Green describes how the relationship continued.
“Suntech has been the next to get our technology into production in a big way via the Pluto cell. They are now producing 0.5 GigaWatts per year of Pluto cells, approaching $1 billion per year in value. CSG Solar also manufactured circa 10 MegaWatt out of thin film ‘silicon-on-glass’ cells in Germany from 2006 to 2008, but ceased, along with several other thin-film manufacturers, when the price of the wafer cells dropped so rapidly, although several large fields of these cells are still operating in Germany.”
What are the challenges now that so many other teams around the world are established and competing for this huge market? Green is realistic. “The main challenge is to maintain the growth of the PV market to allow demand to better match supply, giving manufacturers that survive the present consolidation of the industry healthier margins to allow reinvestment in product development. Manufacturing costs are now $1 per watt but these can be reduced to 50c per watt by 2020.”
Kurzweil’s prediction in 2008 that solar going digital will make the industry unstoppable seems to be coming true. As Green notes, “The photovoltaic industry is currently booming as the fastest-growing sector of the electricity-generation industry. The wholesale price of solar modules has reduced by over 75 per cent since 2008, with solar now able to compete with the retail electricity prices in many parts of the world. During May 2011, solar provided over 20 per cent of total German electricity supply at the time of peak demand, with similar penetration levels seeming likely in many other parts of the world by 2020.
“Suntech, the largest PV manufacturer, is a largely Australian owned and managed company operating in China, with manufacturing facilities in China and the US and research and development facilities in China and Sydney. I think it has more Australian ownership than BHP, and certainly more Australian management control,” says Green.
Green believes that Australia has advantages that will enable it to build on its reputation as the photovoltaic technology and educational hub for the Asia-Pacific region. “The stability of its workforce is a big asset in this regard as well as its ability to better protect IP generated from research and development activities. UNSW has invested in a ‘Solar Industrial Research Facility’ to allow enhancement of this role, with several other companies showing interest in establishing their research headquarters here.”
Green is the Principal Investigator at the newly established research facility and he is also on the Research Advisory Board of UNSW’s Australian Solar Institute (ASI). The government has given $12 million to 10 projects under the umbrella of the ASI to accelerate research and development applied to enterprises such as power plants and spacecraft powered by the sun. CSIRO will receive $1.6 million to develop hybrid cells and BlueScope Steel $0.5 million for collaborative work with German designers of buildings.
Nowadays, when flying internationally, I almost expect inevitably to meet Green in the lounge or boarding a plane somewhere. The last occasion was on his return, not from Germany, but the UK, where he turns out to be writing a book on solar power with Lady Mary Archer the Cambridge chemistry don (and wife of Jeffrey). He is deceptively casual about the determined way he maintains these links with captains of industry and leaders in ideas around the world. He is low-key and invariably friendly with everyone, but in no way underestimates what it takes to keep Australia in the front rank. This latest recognition from the Australian Government is timely.
It is yet another coup for the Australian scientific superstar who started his brilliant career in Queensland as a student, achieved his doctorate in Canada where they too understand the meaning of pioneering enterprise and came to set up his now-famous outfit in Sydney, at UNSW, where the excitement that comes from the possibility of changing the lives of billions continues.
Note: In early 2013, Green was appointed the director of the government’s US-aligned Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, headquartered at UNSW. In May 2013, Green was elected as a fellow of the Royal Society in recognition of his extensive and distinguished contributions to photovoltaic science and technology.
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