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By Peter Dickinson on

Solar technology team wins Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering

Four engineering visionaries behind the silicon cells that transformed the efficiency of solar panels have won the 2023 Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the most prestigious prize of its kind.

The achievement of Martin Green, Andrew Blakers, Jianhua Zhao and Aihua Wang in developing Passivated Emitter and Rear Cell (PERC) technology, will be celebrated alongside previous prize winners in a new gallery, Engineers, opening at the Science Museum on 23 June 2023.

The announcement, at Prince Philip House, home of the Royal Academy of Engineering, seemed a fitting end to a day when the Government announced a Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology with a seat at the Cabinet table for the first time in decades, alongside the newly formed Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

PERC technology has underpinned the rapid growth of low-cost solar electricity that is a vital part of the energy transition away from fossil fuels required to mitigate further damaging impacts of climate change.

The wide adoption of the prize-winning technology owes much to the decision four decades ago by the awardees team not to patent the technology.

Speaking at the event, Professor Green said that decision was based on a view that the prospect of commercial take up of the technology was remote. His lab at the University of New South Wales in Australia has consistently led the world in driving improvements in the efficiency of the technology, achieving their stated goal of 25% efficiency. As one sign of its success, PERC technology accounts for almost 90% of the global solar cell market.

‘Our winners did something wonderful,’ said QEPrize Chairman Lord Browne of Madingly, ‘which was to increase the efficiency with which a solar cell converts light into electricity, and it was a really quite dramatic change.’

The key challenge the team overcame was significantly reducing the efficiency-limiting loss of photon-generated electrons via the silicon layer at the back surface of a solar cell. They achieved this boost to efficiency by adding an additional layer to the cell that helped prevent the loss, known as recombination, and also reflected unused photons back into the silicon to generate more electrons.

The quartet will share a £500,000 award and a trophy, which was designed by Anja Brandl from Switzerland through the Create the Trophy competition. The winner was chosen by a panel of judges chaired by Science Museum Group Chief Executive, Sir Ian Blatchford.

Science Museum Group Chair, Dame Mary Archer, herself a solar scientist who co-edited a book on photovoltaics with Professor Green, said: ‘It was a privilege to be at the Royal Academy of Engineering to congratulate four hugely deserving innovators who are helping to tackle the humanity’s greatest challenge, climate change. PERC technology is found in nine out of 10 solar cells around the world and represents a lasting contribution to society and the planet.’

A major new, free gallery revealing how engineers change the world will open at the Science Museum on Friday 23 June 2023.

Visitors will have the opportunity to take a closer look at iconic objects such as the first digital camera, the cutting-edge CMR ‘Versius’ surgical robot arm and a miniature atomic clock vital to GPS systems, as well as learn more about the remarkable people who invented them.