UNSW PV technology commercialised overseas – yet again

Analysis by Peter Roberts

Another day, another example of world-leading science commercialised overseas.

The term world-leading is over-used by over-zealous Australians, but it is no exaggeration in describing the contribution by the University of New South Wales’s Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics towards the global uptake of PV solar cells.

The Centre, led by Professor Martin Green and the late Stuart Wenham, has repeatedly developed new production technologies that have slashed the cost, and increased the efficiency of solar cells, such that today they are the cheapest form of generating bulk electricity.

Last week their latest innovation, a ‘metal wrap through’ (MWT) solar cell design, was launched on the Australian market by Nanjing, China’s Sunport Power, offering unprecedented efficiencies of more than 20 percent.

UNSW’s achievement of commercial efficiencies of 20 per cent, and laboratory efficiencies of 40 per cent are only some of its world-firsts, which are summarised here.

Sunport’s new MWT panels are not the first UNSW technology to be commercialised – way back when solar PV efficiencies hovered in the low teens, BP Solar commercialised an early iteration of the technology, establishing a solar PV production plant at Homebush in Sydney.

But then followed a brain-drain where subsequent technology developments underpinned manufacturing investments overseas by the likes of Jinko Solar Co, SunPower, Trina Solar and LONGi Solar. Fifty per cent of global PV production is based on UNSW technologies.

There was one brave effort, bankrolled to the tune of $200 million by the NSW government and electricity utilities, to re-establish local manufacturing with a spin-out company, Pacific Solar launched in 1995.

A pilot line to make thin-film cells followed in 1998, but Germany subsidies lured Pacific Solar’s successor CSG to build its commercial plant in 2005 in under-developed East Germany.

The debt the commercial PV industry owes UNSW is illustrated in Sunport Power itself.

The company was founded by Fengming Zhang, a former UNSW solar researcher who also worked as a researcher at Pacific Solar.

UNSW colleague Zhengrong Shi went go on to set up Suntech, the pioneer of the Chinese PV industry.

It is a great achievement for an Australian university research group to be so important to a successful industry such as solar PV.

But wouldn’t it be nice if that achievement had led to greater commercial success.

Picture: UNSW/Martin Green

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