Breakthrough in solar efficiency by UNSW team ahead of its time  

Posted by Big Gav in ,

The SMH has a report on advances in solar cell efficiency at UNSW - Breakthrough in solar efficiency by UNSW team ahead of its time.

Australian scientists have found a way of hugely increasing the efficiency of solar panels while substantially reducing their cost. The University of NSW researchers have come up with improvements in photovoltaic panel design that had not been expected for another decade.

The breakthrough involves using hydrogen atoms to counter defects in silicon cells used in solar panels. As a consequence, poor quality silicon can be made to perform like high quality wafers. The process makes cheap silicon "actually better than the best-quality material people are using at the moment", the head of the university's photovoltaics centre of excellence, Professor Stuart Wenham, said. Silicon wafers account for more than half the cost of making a solar cell. "By using lower-quality silicon, you can drastically reduce that cost," he said. "We've been able to figure out what the secret is that enables hydrogen to sometimes work the way people want it to, and sometimes doesn't."

At present, the best commercial solar cells convert between 17 per cent and 19 per cent of the sun's energy into electricity. UNSW's technique, patented this year, should produce efficiencies of between 21 per cent and 23 per cent. ...

The price of solar panels has fallen by about 65 per cent in two years, partly due to a huge rise in production in China. Australians have been taking advantage of lower prices, with the number of homes with solar panels exceeding 1 million. The phenomenal growth has caused some casualties in the industry as companies have taken on massive debt to expand supply, then struggled with falling prices in saturated markets. Notable among them is the recent debt default by Suntech Power, once the world's largest solar-panel maker, founded by former University of NSW researcher Shi Zhengrong.

Panel prices are predicted to fall much further. European producers predict they will be 60 per cent cheaper by 2020. "Based on the technological advances we're making, we think that's certainly achievable," Dr Wenham said.

Eight commercial firms have signed up to be a partner in developing the technology to an industrial scale, including Suntech, which continues to operate from its base in the eastern Chinese city of Wuxi and has a research unit in Sydney.

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