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International Cooperation

Powered by the Australian sun


Australia's worldwide renown in solar technologies is being placed at the service of a European project to develop photovoltaic cells, led by Spain. An example of an international research partnership based on a genuine mutual interest.



The roof the "G8 summit" building in Birmingham is covered in BP Solarex's PV Cells, produced as a result of cooperation between BP Solarex in Spain and Australian researchers at the University of New South Wales in Sydney.

The Australian sun beats down with such force that the country's preeminence in photovoltaics - the conversion of sunlight into electricity - should come as no surprise. Much of the country's expertise is focused at Sydney's University of New South Wales, where Professor Martin Green's Photovoltaic Group has notched up more world records than any other.

The first records fell in the early to mid-1980s, when Professor Green and his colleagues used lasers to embed metal contacts deep inside a crystalline silicon PV cell. This patented technology has already been commercialised at BP Solarex's manufacturing plant in Madrid, which produces cells with a 17% conversion efficiency - the highest in any commercially produced cell. The PV Group, meanwhile, has led the field ever since, pushing up efficiencies to the most recent record: 24.5% in 1998.

Constant improvement
"It's a constant process of improvement," explains Professor Green. "Over the years we've adopted photolithography from the microelectronic industry to pattern cell surfaces, experimented with different sorts of cell backing and dopants and worked on various processing techniques."

The transfer to Europe of this high-level know-how lies at the heart of the participation of Australian researchers in the Transgen project, supported by the Joule programme, via a partnership led by BP Solarex and the Madrid Polytechnic University. The collaboration is aimed at PV cell characterisation and couldn't be simpler: BP Solaraex sends partly processed silicon wafers to the PV Group for experimentation, while one of Professor Green's postgrads recently spent a few weeks in BP Solarex's laboratories.

They aim to transfer some of the PV Group's newer patented technologies to the Madrid plant, particularly a new sort of metal contact layer on the back of the cell. According to Tim Bruton, Director of BP-Solarex's European Technology Centre, "We are hoping to push our cells close to the 20% mark without substantially increasing production costs. This could double or even triple our production. It's still early days, but we're getting good results in both Australia and Europe. We have the building blocks - now it's time to integrate and optimise."

The cost challenge
Both scientists are adamant that the key to widening the use of PV power is to increase production levels to reduce costs. Mr Bruton, author of a study for the Joule programme in the mid-1990s, recommends "an intense but relatively short subsidy programme to grow the industry until it produces around 500MW per year worth of cells. This would drive unit production costs down to the point where the industry would be self-sustaining and subsidy free. For the moment PV remains locked out of the mainstream power industry, and we continue to fill the atmosphere with greenhouse gases.


Professor Martin Green
Photovoltaics Group,
University of New South Wales
Sydney, Australia
Fax: +61 2 9662 4240

Tim Bruton, BP Solarex
Fax: +44 1932 76 52 93

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