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Australia’s most efficient solar cell, next to ‘revolutionise an entire industry’

A small startup technology company in Wollongong has created what it believes is the most efficient commercial-sized solar cell ever made in Australia without relying on expensive, precious metals, but the next step is more ambitious.

The global solar industry is on a collision course because the growing demand and environmental benefit of solar come with the caveat about its significant use of precious metals.

Today, about 15 per cent of the world’s industrial consumption of silver goes into making solar cells.

“If the industry is to grow by an order of magnitude — which is predicted to happen — that presents a significant challenge,” Sundrive CEO Vince Allen said.

He co-founded the small company in New South Wales that is quietly working to replace silver with copper in solar cell manufacturing.

“It presents its own challenges, and those challenges are the core of what we’re addressing.

“There’s a lot of consensus in the scientific community that copper is most likely to be the most suitable alternative [to silver].”

A solar cell being tested with machinery over a blue solar cell.

A solar cell being tested with machinery over a blue solar cell.

A solar cell being tested for efficiency at Sundrive’s Wollongong lab.(Supplied: Sundrive)

Creating Australia’s most efficient commercial-size solar cell

Late last year, the team used copper instead of silver to fabricate the most efficient commercial-size solar cell ever made in Australia.

Efficiency is measured by how much power you can get out, relative to the amount of sunlight coming in.

Mr Allen said the main problem with using copper on a silicon wafer was it did not stick well enough to the surface of the solar cell and that current methods were unreliable.

Now the team has solved that problem, they are moving on to scaling up production, so those cells can be put on Australian roofs.

And this work is being done in a location so discreet, the only thing on the outside of their building’s wall is a street number.

A solar system installer adjusts solar panels on the roof of a house.

A solar system installer adjusts solar panels on the roof of a house.

Vince Allen says demand for rooftop solar is driving a doubling in size of the solar industry every three years.(Reuters: Tim Wimborne)

Pandemic is steering manufacturing back to Australia

Sundrive’s co-founder David Hu has watched the coronavirus pandemic’s impact on imported goods and has been hearing calls to manufacture more products in Australia.

He said Australia had always been a pioneer in solar technology since the invention of today’s commercial solar cells 30 years ago and we are well-placed to manufacture the product.

He would also like to see the Federal Government’s recent home renovations cash grant proposal be extended to solar panels.

Solar panel

Solar panel

The Sundrive company hopes to be producing its style of solar cells for Australian rooftops in the future.(ABC News: Billy Cooper)

Solar demand set to increase

Mr Allen said the solar industry had been doubling in size about every three years, and Australians’ desire for rooftop solar had been a contributing factor.

Australia has more household solar panels per capita than anywhere else in the world.

With most of those solar panels being manufactured in China, he sees a major business opportunity for solar cells made more sustainably.

It would also be stimulation for the industry manufacturing a product that he believes will significantly outlast current technology.

“When the industry is predicted to grow much greater than it is now, solar cells need to be more efficient and they need to use materials that are more abundant.”

Interestingly, while the company intends to steer solar cell manufacturing away from China, their company’s first investor is Chinese billionaire solar technology pioneer Zhengrong Shi.

Mr Allen said Dr Shi was drawn to Sundrive because he was passionate about using copper instead of silver in solar manufacturing.

“For us, it’s super exciting to start from very early concepts and designs to progressing to prototypes … and getting to the point now where our process is more repeatable and reliable,” he said.

“Going through that whole process is extremely exciting and to do this here and be self-sufficient is incredibly fulfilling.”

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