Aussie solar pioneers win world’s top engineering prize

Professor Martin Green holding solar cells (solar prize)
Professor Martin Green

Four Australian solar researchers have been awarded the 2023 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for their pioneering work in developing Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell (PERC) solar photovoltaic technology, which has underpinned recent exponential growth in high-performance, low-cost solar electricity.

The prize, which has been called the ‘Nobel for engineering’, is presented annually to engineers responsible for ground-breaking innovations that have been of global benefit to humanity. It is regarded as one of the world’s top academic awards rated by the IREG List of International Academic Awards and has a reputation score of 0.51 compared to a Nobel Prize. 

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Sharing the 2023 Prize are Professor Martin Green from UNSW Sydney, Professor Andrew Blakers from the Australian National University and solar entrepreneurs Dr Aihua Wang and Dr Jianhua Zhao.

The 2023 Laureates greatly improved the energy conversion efficiency of commercially dominant silicon cells, by improving the quality of both the top and the rear surface of standard silicon solar cells.

When sunlight—in the form of particles called photons—enters a cell, it excites the electrons within the silicon. In this excited state, electrons can move through the cell, creating electric current. The improved surface of the PERC cell allows the electrons to maintain this excited state—or move freely—for longer, resulting in greater and more efficient energy generation.

Profs Green and Blakers produced solar cells with 18% efficiency at UNSW in 1983, surpassing the 16.5% recorded previously. Over the next two years, Profs Green and Blakers published cell results of 19% and 20% efficiency, subsequently achieving over 21% efficiency in 1988 with Drs Wang and Zhao. In 1983, Prof. Green had theoretically determined the maximum achievable efficiency to be close to 30 per cent. He suggested the maximum practical limit of 25% efficiency, with Drs Wang and Zhao leading the work which ultimately reached this goal in 1999, making the first 23% and 24% efficient cells along the way.

Prof. Green’s lab at UNSW held the global record for efficiency for 30 of the 40 years between 1983 and 2023.

Prof. Green said he’s honoured to share the QEPrize with his three former PhD students, Prof Blakers and Drs Wang and Zhao.

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“As engineers, we are constantly striving to improve the world we live in. As the world feels the devastating impacts of our changing environment and collapsing ecosystems, I feel passionately that we must rapidly reduce our reliance on fossil fuels if we wish to maintain the trajectory of human civilisation on our shared planet. I hope that PERC technology winning the QEPrize will highlight the importance of accelerated solar adoption to address climate change.”

Recognising the significant role PERC technology plays in the development of solar energy, the awardees published their findings without patenting, encouraging further developments within the field and driving down the cost of production to the benefit of wider society.

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