All power to the sun and the light team
Dr Shi and Profesor Gu's respective
research projects both aim to make
solar power an economically viable
replacement to fossil fuels.
Image: iStockphoto

What began decades ago as a friendship between two university students in Shanghai has led to a multi-million-dollar research project with the potential to produce next-generation solar power as affordable as fossil-fuel-derived energy.

The collaboration between Swinburne University of Technology and China-based Suntech Power – one of the world’s largest manufacturers of solar panels – aims to develop solar cells that are twice as efficient and half the cost of existing cells.

If the project is successful, the new technology – which makes more efficient use of sunlight – could be on the market within five years and close the gap between solar and fossil fuels.

The project is led by Suntech CEO Dr Zhengrong Shi and the head of Swinburne’s Centre for Micro-Photonics, Professor Min Gu, and builds on a friendship that began at university and continued in Australia when they began working side-by-side at the University of New South Wales in the late 1980s.

Since then Dr Shi’s Suntech has become the world’s largest producer of crystalline silicon solar panels, and Professor Gu a leader in micro-photonics research.

Research-wise they have followed different paths while maintaining a shared interest in light: Professor Gu pursued research on laser fusion and micro-photonics and Dr Shi was part of the pioneering team that developed thin solar cell technology, a breakthrough that dramatically reduced the cost of solar cells.

Today, their paths have crossed again in a research collaboration which they hope will increase solar-energy uptake by producing cheaper and more efficient solar cells.

Professor Gu explains that although thin-film technology uses 100 times less silicon than conventional cells, thereby reducing the cost of photovoltaic solar panels, the cells’ poor absorption of near infrared light limits their performance.

And light performance is of particular interest to Professor Gu. At the Centre for Micro-Photonics, he and his colleagues study the process of converting light to energy and how to make that process more efficient.

A major focus of his research is the study of photonic crystals – tiny structures that can manipulate and control light by multiple reflection. Professor Gu came up with the idea of developing these photonic crystals to act as solar cells – to convert light to energy – and suggested it to Dr Shi.

Professor Gu says the new solar cells use a combination of photonic crystals treated with metallic nanoparticles, together with thin-film photovoltaic technology. The combination should enable the efficient collection of solar energy in a wider colour range, making the cells twice as efficient and significantly less costly to make than other cells.

The new solar cells use nanoparticles to trap light into a thin-film photovoltaic cell. “Basically, if you can slow down the light it will stay in the solar cell longer and thus convert more light to electricity,” Professor Gu says. “If you are able to trap the light in the part of the solar cell where the conversion is taking place, it becomes even more efficient.”

Professor Gu and his colleagues have already started work on a model cell, which will be produced on a pilot scale at Suntech in China.

“By working with Suntech in the development phase, we can ensure the technology can be transferred to the production line,” he says.

Swinburne signed the agreement with Suntech Power in April and each organisation will contribute $3 million. The project is also seeking funding from the Victorian Government.

Professor Gu believes the group’s combination of research and business expertise will allow it to develop and manufacture the revolutionary solar cells within five years.

Although he has been approached by other institutes to pursue similar research, Dr Shi says he selected the Swinburne team because of its expertise in nanotechnology, which he believes will play an important role in next-generation solar technology.

For solar power to succeed as a replacement for existing methods of generating electricity, it must be able to compete with fossil fuel technologies in terms of cost and performance and Dr Shi believes that the new technology could lead to solar power becoming as cheap as energy derived from fossil fuels.

And, although Australian demand for solar power accounts for less than 1 per cent of the total world market, he says there are many positive indications for the future of the industry in Australia, such as the growing interest and public support for renewable energy solutions.

The collaborative research group will eventually be housed in Swinburne’s new Advanced Technology Centre, a $130 million development due for completion in early 2011.

Dr Shi is a guest speaker at this year’s Nanophotonics Down Under conference.

Nanophotonics Down Under 2009

A meeting will be held in Melbourne in June to discuss the emerging field of nanophotonics, which is becoming increasingly important in photonics applications such as solar energy, information technology, biomedicine and consumer electronics.

Nanophotonics Down Under 2009 Devices and Applications (SMONP 2009) will bring together international specialists from industry and academia to identify key challenges in the emerging applications of nanophotonics. The event will also provide a forum for scientists, engineers and industry representatives to develop new strategic alliances and partnerships.

The program includes a public lecture on Sunday 21 June to increase public awareness of the importance of nanophotonics in future technological applications. The lecture, by Professor Martin Green from the University of New South Wales, will focus on solar energy.

Editor's Note: A story provided by Swinburne Magazine.  This article is under copyright; permission must be sought from Swinburne University of Technology to reproduce it.