Ivan Perez Wurfl | Unleashing the power of solar energy
Solar panel technology has gotten so mature that it is now, without a doubt, instrumental in effectively tackling climate change.
In Australia, solar power has become cheaper and more reliable than ever. The solar industry has expanded so rapidly that these days it’s not uncommon to see every house on a street clad with rooftop solar panels. Today, there is no cheaper method to produce energy than that offered by solar panels, and they’re fast becoming even more economical to install. Australia is well known as the sunburnt country, so why aren’t we taking more advantage of our limitless solar potential and working out how to use solar in new ways? Cheap, clean and reliable energy is now undeniably here, so what is next?
Ann Mossop: In a world of global pandemics, climate emergencies, and ever-increasing costs of living, it's understandable that we might feel fearful about what the future holds. But as we make our way through the 21st century, there are, in fact, many new and exciting discoveries which can improve our lives. I'm Ann Mossop, director of the UNSW Centre for Ideas. Welcome to What comes next? From the potential healing powers of magic mushrooms in mental health, to how x-ray vision might help us transition to a renewable economy. In this 10-part series, we'll hear from UNSW Sydney’s brightest minds, unpacking some of the big ideas, which are integral to our 21st century challenges.
Solar power can be used for much more than running our electricity grid. And with Australia sunburned plains holding limitless solar potential. How can we use our solar energy in new and exciting ways? Ivan Perez Wurful thinks outside the grid.
Ivan Perez Wurful: A few months ago, when the UNSOMNIA panel chose this talk, I was very excited. Then they told me there were no PowerPoint slides, no graphs, no numbers to show. And I was thrilled because this gave me the chance to tell you the story of how I became a solar energy scientist and engineer. A story about the joy of discovery and innovation, among many of my students, while keeping up with an industry that is changing at a lightning-fast pace. You see, solar panels have evolved so quickly that they are now without a doubt instrumental in tackling climate change. Wouldn't it be nice to know a little bit more about the technology and how it came to be?
Well, let's start the journey. Come along with me to 2007. Don't be afraid, the internet was there, mobile phones were there. And even Facebook was already a thing, so you'll be fine. This was a time when I joined UNSW, arguably the best place in the world to do solar cell research. Also, the only place in the world where you can get an engineering degree in photovoltaics if you want to know the fancy word for it. Prior to this, I had been in the US where I got my PhD in electrical engineering, later becoming an essential element of a successful startup company. Our company was developing a new type of transistor for telecommunications. But to tell you the truth, I didn't really feel like I was making much of a difference in the world.
In 2007, solar panels were quite reliable already. And if you had $50,000 stashed under your mattress, you could have installed a state-of-the-art solar power system on your home. Now, keep in mind this was 10% of the cost of a medium sized home in Australia at the time. Understandably, solar energy seemed far from viable. Right around that point in time, solar panels had seen an increase in price due to a shortage of silicon. Mind you, silicon, the main element used in commercial solar cells is the second most abundant element of the Earth's crust. But the volume needed to make solar cells is 1000s of times more than required for computer chips. So the semiconductor industry just couldn't keep up with the demand. Consequently, my research at UNSW focused on using the least amount of silicon to make the best possible solar cells.
For a couple of years, I dedicated myself to engineering tiny, tiny particles of silicon to make what we call quantum dots. This was very intriguing because changing the size of the quantum dot, we could make silicon behave like a completely different element altogether. I was very excited when I managed to make some solar cells that actually behave differently from silicon, even though they were 99.9%, silicon and oxygen. And even though their efficiency was far from record breaking, some of the things we learned turned out to be quite useful. Meanwhile, the solar industry kept growing fueled by the result of a research smart policy that ensured renewable energy was paid at a premium price, and constant improvements in the manufacturing process. Fun fact, about 90% of the solar panels produced in the world today use technology developed at UNSW.
Fast forward to 2020. And you would have paid only 5% of what you would have paid in 2007 for the same solar power system. This is about 20 times less. You also need less material, less space, less cables and less hassle to install it with an added bonus of 25 years warranty on the performance of your panels and all this change in a mere 13 years. So we solved it. Solar panels provide that cheap, clean and reliable energy that is now undeniably here to stay.
So what is next? I think that what is next for solar energy is very exciting, because it is no longer just a lab curiosity. Solar energy is in everyone's reach. Everyone watching this could come up with a great new application. No matter if you're an artist, a scientist, a lawyer, a tradie, a doctor, a student, a teacher, an engineer, the possibilities are endless. I'll tell you about three of the projects I'm now working on, just to give you a taste of what there is to come. Research can be all about exploring unconventional ideas that one day may pay off. But we also need to face reality. And the reality is that to tackle climate change, the time is up. So we need to focus on technologies that are feasible in the very near future. This is precisely why quite a bit of my energy is going into making hydrogen production using solar energy. We can make hydrogen by splitting water in something called an electrolyzer by applying a current through the water. Incidentally, you can find many YouTube videos that show you how to do this in your garage. But if we're going to make this happen at the scale we need it, to power vehicles and industry, we require something quite a bit more efficient than what you find on YouTube.
You see, when you apply a voltage to a couple of metal conductors in a water container, most of the energy is lost and you get very little bang for your buck, a few pumping bubbles of hydrogen. Our goal at UNSW is to make the most efficient large scale solar to hydrogen converter in the world. We have combined the experience and know-how of many of my colleagues to make a super-efficient electrolyzer, coupled with state-of-the-art electronics that I've designed. We're also working with RayGen, an Australian industrial partner, to use their patented solar concentrators. But beware, these solar collectors get hot and heat is bad for solar performance. But it is great to improve the efficiency of the electrolyzer. So, what if we take some of this heat to heat up the water, and consequently keep the solar panels a bit cooler? Well, that's what we're doing. We've proven the idea in the lab and are about to get it out in the field.
Although research has kept me happy and occupied in the lab, over the past four years, my main focus has changed into education because I'm convinced that those with fresh and malleable minds are at the forefront of this revolution, imagining the unthinkable. I now spend most of my time teaching, mentoring and inventing, along with undergraduate students of all disciplines, shaping a cleaner, smarter and more sustainable future.
Let's start with the big polluters, cars, an easy solution just make them electric. But when people think of electric cars, the first thing that comes to mind is, will the battery last long enough for my trip? So what if you could have an electric car that never needs to be charged? This is precisely what a very creative group of students are trying to get to, a solar powered car that you would actually want to drive. But let's not stop there, the car could even power your house, storing energy during the day and giving it back at night. That sense of undergraduate students has put years of effort building a team called Sunswift that is making this dream come true. And we are getting there. The student’s ideas, creativity and time has resulted in a car that I think even Tesla could be a little bit jealous of. Another group of students that I'm also mentoring has decided to look inwards. Once we realize that there is plenty of solar energy, even under your skin. The mini solar team at UNSW is making tiny solar cells, batteries and electronics that one day could work as a medical implant, one that will last as long as you will, because it gets its power from the sun. It will sit happily under your skin gathering data of your health stats may be aging along with you and checking you're still on your feet. And if you're not, calling for help to get you up, or hopefully, maybe just reminding you to get out there and get a little bit of sunshine.
Solar generated electricity has always been an alternative to fossil fuels. But up until just a few years ago, it was still too expensive. I'm thrilled to see we've now crossed that threshold. Nothing is cheaper than solar to make electricity. But as advanced and mature solar panels maybe I still think of them as a vaccine. They have all the potential to solve a huge problem. But the key is on how we use them, where we use them, and what we use them for. We are barely scratching the surface of new applications for solar energy. And I hope I've given you a glimpse of what there is to come. Wouldn't it be cool if you could be riding in a solar powered car that never needs to be charged listening to the news of amazing climate mitigation efforts around the world powered by solar generated hydrogen and knowing with certainty that your health is in perfect condition thanks to a little solar implant that keeps track of your well-being? And of course, this is just the beginning of your story.
Ann Mossop: Ivan, thanks for coming to talk to us.
Ivan Perez Wurful: It’s a pleasure to be here.
Ann Mossop: Tell us about your first interaction with solar technology.
Ivan Perez Wurful: Wow, that would have been pretty much around the time when I got here in 2007 or so, solar cells at that point were still very much something that you could find, the best ones in the lab. But you couldn't really buy a solar panel at Aldi, right, Aldi didn't even really exist. But going in the lab and seeing what I had learned, in theory, because my background was in solid state electronics, and they had seen a lot of stuff on transistors and diodes, and so on. And I had never really seen a solar cell, even though I wanted to actually do that work when I was in the US. But when I got here, and they had these labs, somewhere tucked in the electrical engineering building, even though it was a separate school, and you wouldn't believe that they were making the most efficient solar cells in the world there, right?
So that was the first time and I love the idea of the research and developing the cells. And then as I saw it evolving, probably five years ago, I started realizing, we cannot do much more than what the industry is doing now. And it is more about what we do with those solar panels now. And so, I started playing. You teach some courses, and you realize that the students have a lot of fun coming up with ideas with solar panels. And that got me into Sunswift, that got me into putting solar panels everywhere, I play with my daughter making fountains with solar panels. And so, it is just fun. Because the thing is, I always liked electricity and putting things together.
Ann Mossop: Is that something that started when you were a kid?
Ivan Perez Wurful: Yeah, yeah, I remember, I cannot believe that this is what happened. But I would actually ride in the car, at the feet of my mom underneath, you know, the car dashboard. And I would take apart the cables that were there while we were driving. And I remember taking a flashlight and realizing, ooh, if you connect this to that there's a light. And I've always been interested in electricity, I think.
Ann Mossop: I think those of us who traveled in cars before the age of car safety have some very interesting experiences to recount. And so that was something that endured, obviously, and you went and studied engineering?
Ivan Perez Wurful: Yeah, the interesting thing is, for the longest time, I thought I was going to be a marine biologist. That's what I wanted to do. And I liked the idea of being able to breathe underwater.
Ann Mossop: And did you grow up near the ocean?
Ivan Perez Wurful: No, no, no, I grew up in Mexico, right next to Mexico City. So it's in the middle of the country, 2000 meters above sea level, right? And yes, we would go to the ocean every once in a while, but I always loved the water. But it was not, it was a dream, I just wanted to be able to breathe underwater, right? And then I don't remember what changed in the last year of my high school. I decided I was going to do physics. And then I ended up getting a scholarship for a university that didn't have physics, but they had engineering physics. So then I did engineering physics. And then yeah, that got me along that path of engineering and science. And yes, it was back then that I was able to take a minor in electronics. And that's where I found that it's an amazing hobby.
Ann Mossop: So you're working in electronics and transistors, and you come to Australia and end up working on solar cells. What is the expertise that is transferable between those disciplines?
Ivan Perez Wurful: Yeah, so particularly when I got here, the main focus of the research center was on improving the solar cells themselves. And that requires quite a bit of understanding of the physics of the device itself. And that was perfectly matching what I had done before. And I always thought, well, this is nice. This is not as simple as the simplest thing that I learned, but significantly simpler than the thing that I was doing in terms of the science and physics behind it. But then as you start digging in, you realize, oh, this is just as complex, but it has different nuances, right? But it overlaps very, very well. So whatever I learned for the transistors that we were making when I left the US was perfectly transferable here. And it also overlapped quite a bit with being able to teach some of the courses that were offered at the school at that time.
Ann Mossop: And the point that you made in our conversation, but also in your talk is that, you know, UNSW, in particular, has been at the forefront of developments in solar technology. But that, generally as a technology, this technology is stable, mature, and so, you know, now the opportunity is to look at, what else do we do with it?
Ivan Perez Wurful: Exactly, yeah, yeah, exactly. And what really comes to mind is, well, now I have this thing that is so cheap that I can just go to Bunnings and buy for a few dollars, right? And then it will work forever. And so you start coming up with, anywhere from a fountain to a, you know, a smoke detector, that you never need to change batteries for, two cars that either will run much more efficiently because you add a solar panel, or maybe that could run forever, if you have solar on them. But yeah, I think, I really think that the future now for solar is in how we use them, the systems that we develop around them. Because I always make this analogy. Maybe in the 1980s, when the big companies like Intel started making microprocessors, eventually, the research groups at the universities could not begin to make what they make in these billion-dollar labs. Right? So I think we're in a similar situation now with solar where they have such big production lines, and they do it so often, that they can iterate these things that we were doing in the lab quite a bit more efficiently and in much larger volumes. So when it took us, I don't know, years to get to that 25% efficiency. Now they can dial in the few knobs here and there and produce 24% efficient sales. And now it's the industry that actually has the record way above 25, at around 26.4. I think, and universities would have a lot of trouble keeping up with that, because you don't have millions of dollars.
Ann Mossop: And you’re not making millions of these. And it's gone into this kind of point in the cycle where universities need to be doing something else, which makes the most of our particular skills, which are looking at what's next.
Ivan Perez Wurful: Yeah, exactly. But there's plenty to do as well, in the more like, what we would call, basic research, right? Where we could make solar cells that are 30% efficient by adding some other materials on top. But, the industry is not quite ready to deploy those because they haven't been around long enough, right? So there is definitely scope for universities to —
Ann Mossop: — to continue to innovate the way we think about what solar even is.
Ivan Perez Wurful: Exactly, yeah. But in my very specific case, I felt that it was much more inclusive, if you think about where you use them, because then really any of my students can grab a solar panel and come up with a fun idea to use it, right? Whereas if you are doing research in solar, you need to spend a year being trained in all the labs, that you need to get access to and a special piece of equipment that you need to characterize yourself. Whereas with a solar panel, you just need —
Ann Mossop: — here's the panel, think of something interesting to do with it. You talk quite a lot about your students and working with your students. And, you know, I get a sense that that's something that you enjoy, that whole process of working with students. It strikes me, it's a very different thing to be saying to a student, come into the lab, and we're going to grind you through some procedures for two years, and then we might let you do something, to a kind of a sense of an educational space where somebody is going to say here, here's this great technology, you know, what do you want to do with it?
Ivan Perez Wurful: Yeah, I think it does make it much easier when you do it that way, where you are much freer to do whatever you want. It doesn't mean that you cannot do it in a lab where you're doing this fancy stuff with solar cells. But the fact that you have to be in a lab, limits the amount of people that can go in there, right? Whereas with things like, here's the solar panel, go and solve the problem that the gardener has next door, is much more real. And I've always been convinced that particularly if you're learning if you are interested in engineering, learning through the process of making and actually putting your hands to something, really enhances your education, it's much better. If you make something then if you just learn about how to make it, and the main thing I always tell my students is, once you make it, you realize what is possible.
So, when you design something, you're not going to come with something that someone else cannot make. So I've always been really intrigued by how to get the students involved in something. And it was probably about, I don't even know how many years ago, but a colleague of mine approached me and said, hey, I have $5,000, and I need this thing to be to be developed for something that she was doing in solar, so something that she needed to, to measure. And I was starting to teach a course at that point, that had to do with how to measure the characteristics of solar cells. And so I said to her, would you be willing to provide those $5,000 for a solution that the students could come up with? And so she was up for it. And when I told the students, they were a little bit taken aback, right? A real thing?! And then it was the funniest thing, because they would send me pictures in the middle of the night of them working in the lab, because they were so excited with the idea of solving a real-world problem, right? And so, I had never seen such involvement from the student's part, until I gave him a real problem, right? And so that really opened up the door for me to say, how about my whole idea of teaching is around projects. And so, part of that was along with the standard class courses that I teach. But now with this thing called VIP here at UNSW, the Vertically Integrated Projects, it allows students to get involved in real world projects and get credit for it. So Sunswift is one of those.
Ann Mossop: Tell us what Sunswift is.
Ivan Perez Wurful: So Sunswift, it started as a, it's a group of students that design a car that is meant to be able to run a race that goes from the north of Australia to the South Australia, so Darwin to Adelaide. And the original race was cars that would do this, purely powered by the sun, eventually, it evolved into different categories. So then they got into this other category that is called the cruiser class, there are many things that count as part of the race, not just being able to complete the race, but also how efficiently you do it, but how many passengers you can put in and how much of this car you would consider as attractive and, and so then it evolved into that. And up until about four years ago, it was still completely student led. And they had a pretty good budget from UNSW, but it was up to the students to do it. And they organize everything, and they didn't really get any academic credit for it. And so then, when VIP came into being, Sunswift became one of the projects, that meant that now academics are involved, and we mentor the students, but the students still decide the direction of the project, right? So now they get academic credit for it, they get a little bit more, quite a bit more, support from academics, but it's still completely led by them. And so that's one, Sunswift. And then I'm also involved in another one called mini solar, which was the first project that we put in as the school of photovoltaics and renewable energy engineering. Four years ago, when VIP started the university as different schools to provide possible projects, so we started this mini solar project, and it actually won the best project in the world in the VIP program.
Ann Mossop: So the VIP is an international program? And when you say ‘vertically integrated’, what does that mean? Different students at different levels?
Ivan Perez Wurful: Well, yeah, for one, the whole idea of this program is that you come into it, and eventually could become a project that actually has enough traction to have graduate students as well. So you come in without any expertise or knowledge in the area. And you learn as you go through the program. But ideally, the student that gets involved into this actually wants to continue and they can do it for their whole career at the University, starting in their second year. And eventually you could bring in students into your research group, which is working around this project, right? Right now, because it started just a few years ago. It hasn't quite matured to that level. But that is the idea and the vertically integrated bit, is you start knowing nothing and ideally by the end you are the mentor for the ones that are coming in.
Ann Mossop: And how did it win Best Project in the World?
Ivan Perez Wurful: So once again, that was really interesting, because what we said is, we are mini solar, and we had some ideas. ‘We’, meaning the academics that started this, right? And so the idea was, well, let's make little solar cells, because now that they are very efficient, maybe you can power all sorts of things, even if they're little. And our original goal was to be able to make small enough things, all in one chip that would contain all the electronics plus the solar cells and everything that you needed, integrated into a chip, right? So you would do everything like CPUs for computers, right? Same idea. And as we started with that IDM, the students were given the challenge of finding out what would you do with a small solar panel and, and then this evolved into something they thought, actually, and that was three years ago [during] the bush fires, and they thought, what if we use them for bushfire detection instead? And so they turn it around and propose to use these little solar things and, and sensors to, to check for fires, right? And so it took a couple of years for us to get to a prototype, and that was all driven by the students. We were back there giving them you know, advice as to, well, how do you make those? But in the end, they did everything from the ideation to the planning to the creation of the video. And that's, that's what basically you send to, to —
Ann Mossop: — the international department of integrated projects.
Ivan Perez Wurful: Yeah. And so it was their video that talked about this project. And that's what, what got us there.
Ann Mossop: It seems to me that that's an extraordinarily rich and enjoyable learning experience for students. What do you see about students who go through programs like that? What's different?
Ivan Perez Wurful: Well, I can tell you for certain that they really enjoy it, because we have a different relationship, once you're working with a student for a year, right? Not only are you working with the student, but you're also not teaching them you're, you're guiding them, right? So it is much more of almost like a colleague that you're working with. And so they're very comfortable telling you what's working and what's not working, right? And so, invariably, at the end of the year, when we have to give them marks, they say there is no other experience at the University where I've learned this much. And one of the ways to actually confirm that is, so this is with Sunswift, which is also VIP then, we didn't really realize that, or I wasn't paying enough attention, that my whole group of students was finishing at the same time. In VIP, you have to do that, they start at the beginning of the year, and they end up at the end of the year. But for Sunswift, it’s a very unique in that you can enroll in any term. So finish after three terms. And I didn't really register that all of my students were finishing on the same term. So I was gonna end up with no students to continue within the renewable department in Sunswift. And so when we talked about it, and we said, we really need to recruit new students, they were super excited to be able to share their experience to try and bring more students in. And we actually ended up with more students now than what we had before because they were so excited.
Ann Mossop: Specifically, because you'd asked them to be your recruiters.
Ivan Perez Wurful: Yeah. So, I am convinced that they are not making it up, I can see that they really, not only enjoy it, but they do learn a lot, because they have to interact with industry, they have to think about, what's the point of what I'm doing, right? And so they have to work in a team, they have to respond to, they have a plan, you better stick to it, or if you're responsible for something, it's much more. It's not just the mark and actually, that's, that's my dream actually come true. They don't care about the mark. They are just doing it and the mark comes naturally good because they are just —
Ann Mossop: — really engaged. Yeah. Really, you're challenging, you know, your own and the students' creativity and imagination and ability to think outside narrow technical boundaries. And, you know, I'm sure in engineering that that's something that, you know, is an incredibly important skill, but that's certainly not the reputation of engineers and the outside world. As you know, these incredibly creative people, thinking about things in a very blue-sky way. Do you feel that the importance of that level of creativity and imagination is recognized in engineering education?
Ivan Perez Wurful: My experience back as an undergrad, and most of the students around me were engineers, right? And I did have this perception that engineers are pretty square minded, right? Because you're being taught the way things work. But then I went to the electrical engineering department when I did my graduate studies in the US. And then I was doing research. So it was all about, well, we have this idea, let's see if it works. And then it totally changed my mind as to what engineering was. And maybe it's because it was more connected to the science of it, rather than the technology. And then once we actually developed these transistors, and then we started the company, and it started to become really boring because the company needed to develop something because we were acquired and they needed us to do… so yeah, it became very much this square thing, right? Because even though there was still some space for creativity, it was very narrow as to what we were to deliver. And then I came here. And I think the engineers that were studying photovoltaics were a little bit out of, like, the fringe of engineering in the sense that they were these ‘greenies’ that were interested in technology, right?
Ann Mossop: And people inventing a whole new technical discipline, effectively.
Ivan Perez Wurful: And the thing is, I think, those, particularly the ones that decided to study this 20 odd years ago, when the school separated from electrical engineering, were betting on something that they thought was going to be important or, or we thought, you know, this is really a very good way of saving, I'm not gonna say saving the planet, because we're not going to save the planet.
Ann Mossop: But it is an incredibly important contribution.
Ivan Perez Wurful: And 20 years ago, these people were betting on their students, were betting on something that didn't exist. And what is amazing now is, every one of our students now has a job before they are done, because the renewable energy industry just exploded. But then we still get the students that are thinking, I'm interested in engineering, but I, I, you know, I want to make a difference in the world, really. And maybe they have a bit of a more flexible mind in that sense. So I don't know if it is these particular students that do engineering, or it's because we are in an engineering field that is so new, that we are still able to think all sorts of things are possible. And even though there are already many standards for what a solar system should be, and all the safety standards and everything, there's still this, ooh, but I know that in a couple of years, I'm going to have a panel that is that much better. So I think it just keeps you open minded. And I think one of the first things that I tell my students, it's actually the first lecture that I give them for one course that is called ‘Second year project’ —
Ann Mossop: — that's a very exciting sounding course.
Ivan Perez Wurful: Right? And, and I tell them, up to now, you've been learning all this stuff about maths and physics and computers, and, and you've been solving tons of problems. And I'm sorry to tell you, but all those problems were designed to be solved. But real world problems don't have a solution. And once you open your mind to that —
Ann Mossop: — once you get over the fear.
Ivan Perez Wurful: And it's a constant battle, because the students often want to know what is the answer, and I tell them, Well, this is one possible answer. But particularly when you are making something you don't know if that's the best answer, right? Because somebody else could come up with a better way or a different way. And changing that mindset is difficult, but I don't think that is just for engineering. As you come into the university, you've gone through your high school years where you were formed to take an exam and know the answer and so on. And I do think that we would benefit quite a bit more from having a much more inquisitive sort of education. But from experience, I know that it is significantly more time consuming, both from the perspective of the student and the teacher, you do need to put a lot more time than, okay, here's the lecture, read the notes —
Ann Mossop: — answer this question and you're done. Yeah. Well, I think it makes me want to have studied engineering in the past, I have to say, it does sound like a lot of fun. Thanks so much for coming to tell us about it. And I can't wait to see what happens next in the solar field.
Ivan Perez Wurful: Me too.
Ann Mossop: What comes next? is produced by the UNSW Center for Ideas. With music composition by Lana Zacharia and editing by Bryce Halladay. For more information, visit centreideas.com, and don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts.
Ivan Perez Wurfl
Ivan Perez Wurfl is a senior lecturer and researcher in the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy, Faculty of Engineering at UNSW Sydney. Ivan’s main areas of expertise are solar cell design, fabrication and characterisation. In particular, he has extensively studied and developed silicon quantum dot solar cells and multijunction SiGe/GaAsP tandem solar cells. Before moving to Australia he worked as a device scientist at Power Sicel Inc (now part of Microsemi Corporation), developing SiC High Power RF devices. He was a Fulbright fellow from at the University of Colorado where he obtained his PhD in Electrical Engineering. Ivan has authored 100+ journal articles and conference papers in the areas of solar cells and high power and high frequency solid state devices.