Australian researchers have committed  million to study alternative solar panel materials

Australian researchers have committed $45 million to study alternative solar panel materials

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The Albanian government has expanded funding for Australia’s world-leading solar energy scientists as they seek to increase module efficiency and switch to more abundant materials before restrictions on silver and other metals stun the industry’s growth.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency will announce on Friday that it will provide $45 million over the next eight years to the University of NSW-based Australian Center for Advanced Photovoltaics. Most money is spent within the first five years.

The money will ensure that up to 60 scientists retain funding, although annual funding is roughly the rate of the previous 10-year grant. It will involve two other partners, the University of Sydney and CSIRO’s Newcastle Energy Group, and seek to encourage further growth through the onboarding of commercial partners.

“Australia has all the ingredients to become a renewable energy superpower, with this government working together to ensure safe, affordable and reliable energy that reduces emissions,” said Energy Secretary Chris Bowen.

“It’s a global race [and] We have been at the forefront of this for a long time and have been able to attract people internationally… and we still do,” said Prof Renate Egan, Head of UNSW at the Centre.

Related: Demand for rooftop solar batteries is increasing as energy prices soar in eastern Australia

Australian researchers have pioneered a range of solar technologies, with up to 90% of the world’s annual module production based on this pedigree. The Australian National University, the University of Melbourne, Monash University, the University of Queensland and the Clayton Unit of CSIRO in Melbourne are partners of the Centre.

Martin Green, the UNSW professor who has long led the center’s research, developed cells with 20% efficiency in converting sunlight into electricity in 1989 and doubled that rate for laboratory cells by 2014, among a long list of achievements. Center graduates also work in many of the world’s major solar companies.

“The next decade promises to be the most exciting and important in solar photovoltaic history, with massive increases in adoption and technological change,” said Green.

Egan said solar power currently accounts for just 3-4% of the world’s electricity and around 15% in Australia. “We need to get that over 50% here and internationally” to enable the transition to fossil fuels and limit the impact of heating climate, she said. “We are just at the beginning with the development of solar technology.”

The expanded research would help Arena meet its goals of mass producing solar cells with 30% efficiency at a cost of 30 cents per watt by 2030. Modules on the market can now operate at 23-24% efficiency at a cost of around 70 cents/watt.

Achieving these goals will not be easy. The new funding will work on so-called tandem cells, which stack two or more layers of materials to capture more energy of the light spectrum and work longer, especially at higher temperatures.

“We know it’s possible, but in the end we’re going to have a completely different set of materials and structure,” Egan said.

The need to identify new minerals is partly due to the fact that current uses, particularly silver, will soon pose a challenge to the solar industry worldwide. With production doubling every three years for the past three decades, the solar PV industry consumes about 10% of the world’s silver in its 200 gigawatts of capacity added annually.

“So we can’t double and double it, otherwise we’re consuming 50% of the world’s silver and that would clearly create a supply bottleneck and a price challenge,” Egan said, adding that several alternative materials are being worked on, but more research is needed necessary.

The center will also seek to work more collaboratively to develop manufacturing capabilities in Australia. With 4GW of modules installed annually, the local market is approaching the volumes needed to justify onshore production, especially if plans by Sun Cable and others for giant solar farms of 20GW or more each continue become, she said.

Australia’s best prospects may be in silicon refining, with wafer and cell processing done elsewhere and final module work done locally, she said.

Richard Corkish, another UNSW professor and the center’s chief operating officer, said the extension of the funding will be crucial as there are few ways the world can reduce emissions from energy use fast enough to meet the to deal with the climate crisis.

“The big two are solar PV and wind,” along with improved energy efficiency, Corkish said. “And in the long term, solar PV will be the right thing to do.”

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