Australia targets net zero emissions with next-generation renewable energy technology

May 17, 2024

Australia plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050 and our universities are spearheading the scientific innovations to achieve it.

Image: Professor Anita Ho-Baillie, John Hooke Chair of Nanoscience at The University of Sydney. Supplied

Australia plans to reach net zero emissions by 2050. With the transformation underway, the country’s universities are spearheading the scientific innovations critical to achieving national targets in renewable energy.

University science paved the way for Australia as a pioneer in photovoltaics. PERC solar cells, the brainchild of UNSW Scientia Professor Martin Green, continue to be the world’s most commercially viable silicon solar cell technology, reaching 25% efficiency.

Professor Anita Ho-Baillie, John Hooke Chair of Nanoscience at The University of Sydney, is boosting that efficiency by stacking together two different light-absorbing materials to expand the spectrum of sunlight solar cells can soak up. Perovskite forms the top layer to harvest high-energy rays, while the bottom silicon layer absorbs low-energy light.

“They’re working in tandem, making them more efficient in converting solar energy into electricity — up to 40%,” says Ho-Baillie. “We’re hoping to produce more power with less or the same amount of area, effectively reducing cost. And the more power we produce, the shorter the energy payback.”

Solar also powers the production of green hydrogen, another renewable energy source. Professor Tianyi Ma, a materials chemist at RMIT University, harnesses sunlight for his solar-to-hydrogen generator. This device is designed to float on water, with a photocatalyst-coated top layer that directly converts solar to hydrogen without the intermediate electricity generation and costly battery energy storage.

This simplifies the otherwise complex process of producing green hydrogen. “This results in lower costs and can potentially lead to large-scale utilisation of renewable energy,” Ma says. “And because it’s floating, it doesn’t occupy land space.”

“We’re educating and training the next generation to make renewable energy better.”

Professor Anita Ho-Baillie, John Hooke Chair of Nanoscience at The University of Sydney

Industry is hot on the trail of these next-generation technologies. Ho-Baillie is collaborating with Sydney-based solar tech startup SunDrive, while Ma is working with industry partners and has recently been awarded a funding grant from the Australian Renewable Energy Agency.

Emerging avenues of research across the university ecosystem are integral to advancing renewable energy. Ho-Baillie’s group, for instance, includes undergrads as well as graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. “We’re educating and training the next generation to make renewable energy better,” she says.

Writer: Rina Caballar

First published in Australian University Science, Issue 11

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