A lifetime of engineering conservation

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Professor Andrew Blakers speaks at a recent celebration of the 2023 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, awarded to him and his colleagues for the development of Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell (PERC) solar photovoltaic technology.
Professor Andrew Blakers speaks at a recent celebration of the 2023 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, awarded to him and his colleagues for the development of Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell (PERC) solar photovoltaic technology.

Professor Andrew Blakers has dedicated his life and career to creating innovative solutions that help tackle climate change.

In recognition of his role in transforming solar cell technology, the internationally renowned expert from The Australian National University (ANU) has been awarded the world’s most prestigious engineering prize.

Professor Blakers and his colleagues received the 2023 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering for the development of Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell (PERC) solar photovoltaic technology.

The ANU College of Engineering, Computing and Cybernetics recently gathered to celebrate with an in-conversation discussion with ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Brian Schmidt AC, and to hear about Professor Blakers’ mission to leave our planet in a good condition for future generations.

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When I was growing up in Canberra, Campbell was a frontier suburb with raw earth and not many trees. I was going to be an astronomer, which meant I spent lots of time outside with a little telescope and mosquitoes trying to identify various stars.

I enrolled at ANU in 1974, and of course took physics and maths to become an astronomer. But around the same time I also took up bushwalking and cross-country skiing. And you can’t do this without noticing that there’s a very beautiful world out there and it’s in grave danger.

It was quite obvious back in the 1970s that global warming was going to be one of the top threats. So I decided that instead of going into astronomy, I would go into solar energy. I still like science, particularly around our sun, so I haven’t really moved all that far.

Environmental conservation has been a family business. Our parents were in on the start of the Australian Conservation Foundation in the early sixties. Both my mother and father were arrested on the Franklin River in 1983. My sister Margaret was deeply involved in founding the Victorian Greens and the Global Greens and about a dozen other organisations. My brother Robert is a full-time wilderness photographer in Tasmania. And both of them are heavily engaged in trying to decisively end native forest logging.

As a student, I joined the ANU mountaineering club and I was a member of the 1978 expedition that went off to Mount Dunagiri in Northern India. I didn’t get anywhere near the top. But it was the launch of the illustrious climbing careers of Tim Macartney-Snape and Lincoln Hall. Nearly 50 years later, and all the people from that expedition are still good friends. It’s a wonderful way to make friends, going outdoors with them.

When I came back, I decided I would do a PhD in solar energy. I visited all the groups in Australia in that field, and it didn’t take me more than a few minutes in Martin Green’s lab to realise that this is the best one by a large margin. That was certainly the best career choice I ever made.

That group went on to become one of the world’s best. I spent ten years at the University of New South Wales on my PhD and several postdocs working on highly efficient solar cells. Aihua Wang and Jianhua Zhao joined the group in the late 1980s. As a team, the four of us were instrumental in developing the PERC solar cell. We held the world efficiency record for silicon solar cells for a long time, over many years.

PERC cells are currently about 85 per cent of global solar panel sales, and cumulative sales to date are about $200 billion. At the moment PERC is mitigating about 1 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent per year through the displacement of coal, which is about twice Australia’s total emissions. And that’s exponentially increasing as solar energy simply takes over all that energy.

So in 1989-1990, I spent a couple of years in Stuttgart in Germany as the Humboldt Fellow, again working on solar cells. There were two notable events in Germany. One was the fall of the Berlin Wall. But the much more important event it seems, was that Germany won the soccer World Cup in that year.

I was very happy to come back to Canberra in 1991 and I joined ANU as an academic and founded the Solar Group. We currently have about 60 members and quite a nice lab. But it’s been heavy going over the last three years, with bushfires, hailstorms and COVID.

Of the 32 years I’ve worked at ANU, I’ve worked with dozens of really wonderful colleagues. Some of them are my former PhD students who are now my very esteemed academic colleagues, including Klaus, Matt, Kylie, Joe, Dan, The, Bin and Chen. And there’s other long-time colleagues of many years working in the solar area such as James, Dan, Neil, Bruce, Steph and others. Thanks to all these people and the many others for being there and for sharing the vision of solar energy as the solution to climate change, and to energy generally, for the next 5 billion years. At least until the sun becomes a red giant and then solar works even better.

In recent years, I switched to working on high resolution analysis of 100 per cent renewable energy. We were able to show, along with other groups around the world, that it’s actually really straightforward. Over the last few years, we’ve gone from people saying, ‘oh you can’t run an aluminium smelter on solar’, to now saying you can’t run an aluminium smelter on anything other than solar because it’s too expensive. Things are just utterly changed. The storage problem, which a lot of people talk about, has been solved by the recognition that there’s unlimited pump hydro opportunity around the world, about 600,000 sites. Really there’s nothing more to invent, but there’s plenty of work to be done to make the price of clean energy even cheaper.

I’ve spent 36 years so far at ANU, first as a student, then as an academic and now as an alumnus. It’s a great university, in a great city, in a great country. One of the really nice things about living in Canberra is proximity to lots of natural areas. For the last 30 odd years a group of friends has headed off to the Brindabellas on half a dozen summer afternoons each year and walked up a mountain to have dinner on top with the setting sun. There’s not many cities where you can do that sort of thing.

I’d love to say thank you very much to my wife Heather, who is an academic at UNSW Canberra and to my children Tristan, Anna, and Quinn, daughter in law Rachel, and grandchild Alex.

I’ve been very lucky to have a career which is both technically interesting and perfectly aligned to my interests in conservation and environment.

It’s now clear that solar energy has hands down won the global energy race, and will do the heavy lifting to get rid of fossil fuels and solve the climate problem. The fastest energy change in history is well underway. There’s never been anything like this in the whole history of energy. Last year there was more solar capacity installed then everything else put together and it’s about three times as fast as has ever happened in all of history.

And this is only the start. Exponential growth means that in three years it will be six times faster and so forth. We grew 2,000 times in solar capacity over the last 25 years. We still have to grow another 80 to consign fossil fuels to the ashtray of history.

We inherited a fabulously beautiful and wonderful planet. The prime objective is typically to leave it in very good condition for our grandkids.

You are on Aboriginal land.

The Australian National University acknowledges, celebrates and pays our respects to the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people of the Canberra region and to all First Nations Australians on whose traditional lands we meet and work, and whose cultures are among the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

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