A team of Australian scientists has won one of the most coveted awards in the engineering profession for its work in the field of solar PV.

The team of researchers from the University of NSW, led by Professor Stuart Wenham, won this year’s A.F. Harvey Engineering Research Prize from the Institution of Engineering and Technology for its groundbreaking efforts to develop cheaper and more efficient solar PV cells.

Wenham and his team have developed a passive silicon treatment process called “hydrogenation,” which is capable of correcting the defects in the key solar cell ingredient via the manipulation of hydrogen atoms.

Wenham said the process has thus far proven highly successful in correcting a host of defects that can arise in silicon.

“We’ve used the technology with different silicon grades from a variety of sources, and shown that it can correct a broad range of defects that can affect the materials,”he said.

He said the process enables cheaper, low quality silicon to achieve conversion efficiencies on par with cells made from far more expensive, high purity materials, which currently run as high as 23 per cent. This technique promises to radically reduce the cost of solar PV given that silicon is the most costly material involved in their production.

The A.F. Harvey Engineering Research Prize is one of the most lucrative in the world, worth a total of 300,000 British pounds (AU$560,000) for winners of the award. Wenham said the UNSW team plans to put back the money into further development of the technology and research efforts to enhance its potential.

Wenham said strong links with industry have already been established, with six solar PV companies, including Chinese PV giant China Sunenergy, Suntech and REC sOLAR inking agreements with UNSW to serve as industry partners. Wenham further expects this number to double within the next several months.

UNSW possesses an outstanding track record in the development of solar PV and is the current world record holder for silicon solar cell efficiency.

The university’s labs first grabbed this record back in 2008 when it achieved 25 per cent efficiency, while researchers from its Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics now hope to achieve 30 per cent efficiency via the stacking of cells which are capable of harvesting energy from a broader range of the spectrum – in particular blue and green sunlight which remains poorly utilized by current silicon cells.

According to Martin Green, director of the UNSW Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics, this method could potentially achieve conversion efficiencies as high as 40 per cent before the end of the decade.