Young Leaders in Environmental Issues and Climate Change
People's Choice Awards
Nicole is a solar energy scientist who is developing technology that could bring electricity to 2 billion of the world’s poorest people.
Global Warming - Ink Jet to the Rescue
A 23 year old PhD student who developed cutting-edge photovoltaic (solar) technology using a low-cost inkjet printing process has won the British Council Eureka Prize for Young Leaders in Environmental Issues and Climate Change.
This prize is part of the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes, the Oscars of Australian science. Coveted among science prizes, the Australian Museum Eureka Prizes were announced at a glittering event in Sydney on 19 August attended by a ‘who's who' of Australian science, government, academia and industry.
"Two billion people around the world have no access to reliable electricity. Imagine if this could be provided with energy that was both cheap and green." This thought motivated prize winner Nicole Kuepper's iJET research.
Current production techniques for photovoltaic cells makes them expensive and out of reach for most people in developing countries. The iJET solar cell represents a breakthrough: a simple, affordable solar device that can be made without high- tech environments or high cost inputs. Using Inkjet printing, aluminium spray and a low temperature pizza oven, Ms Kuepper created the metal contacts necessary for a solar cell to generate electricity.
"Nicole's iJET solar cell will potentially bring affordable electricity to the poorest people in the world. But, more than this, it will be clean and renewable energy," says Australian Museum Director, Frank Howarth.
While photovoltaics is the world's most rapidly growing energy source, the production of solar cells currently requires sophisticated and expensive manufacturing facilities and highly trained personnel. These conditions are not easily available in developing countries. Nicole Kuepper's low cost and low-tech solar cells could offer a way to remove the dependence of developing countries on greenhouse gas-producing energy sources.
Beyond her work as a scientific innovator, Ms Kuepper has also taken up the role of communicator and educator. She lectures in engineering at UNSW, where she has developed courses on the ethics of manufacturing and sustainable energy in developing countries.
Ms Kuepper has taken her message out of the University and into the broader community, using a creative and accessible approach to her subject matter. She has held miniature solar car races to teach Indigenous children about renewable energy and incorporated pop music into a waste management course in the Philippines.
Her leadership credentials are demonstrated by her past presidency of the Photovoltaic Society, and her Directorship of the Sydney Energy Cooperative, which helps households reduce their CO2 emissions. Through the Green Geeks program, she has presented solar energy workshops for the ACT Greens party and conducts public lectures to help the local community around UNSW to understand this issue.
Recently, Ms Kuepper was selected to attend the Australian Government's Youth Summit2020 where she presented her idea for the ‘Australian Sustainability Challenge', a program which would present incentives for local governments to improve their sustainability. The idea was voted the best in the Climate Change and Sustainability category and was presented to the Australia2020 Summit proper.
The British Council Eureka Prize for Young Leaders in Environmental Issues and Climate Change, which will provide Ms Kuepper with a study tour to the UK to the value of $10,000, is awarded to a young Australian aged 21-30 for scientific or technological leadership in responding to the challenges that threaten our environment and our climate.
It's no secret that solar energy will play a critical role in decreasing greenhouse gas emissions and abating the affects of global warming. What's not well recognised, however, is the role solar energy can play in alleviating poverty.
Today, one-third of the world's population is without electricity - no lights to read by at night, no radio or TV to stay informed, and no fridge to store life-saving vaccines. There is a clear link between electricity and living standards and Nicole believes passionately that photovoltaic technology is the key to addressing poverty, by giving everyone access to cheap, green electricity.
A typical photovoltaic cell is made of a thin boron doped P-type (P for positive) silicon wafer with positively charged 'holes' (missing electrons). One side of this original wafer is then doped with phosphorus to create extra electrons, and is called N-type (N for negative). Where the P and N-type silicon meet a junction is created that separates electrons and holes when exposed to light. Metal contact is made to both the P and N-type silicon allowing electrons to flow out of the N-type silicon, through a light bulb and back around to the P-type silicon. This movement of electrons constitutes an electric current - thus converting light into electricity!
Unfortunately photovoltaic cells are expensive to produce, as you traditionally need access to elaborate, ‘clean' manufacturing plants staffed by highly trained technicians. Most solar cells are therefore manufactured in developed countries that experience high tax, transport and labour costs, putting the technology well out of the reach of poor countries.
Nicole has spent the last two years researching an alternative manufacturing process and has designed and patented an affordable, simple and innovative photovoltaic device called the iJET Cell. Using Inkjet printing, aluminium spray and a pizza oven, Nicole has created metal contacts to both the negative and positive sections of a solar cell in the simple, low temperature process.
When asked to describe the process she says "To pattern the cell we spray on something like nail polish and then inkjet print a kind of nail polish remover which lets us etch certain parts of the wafer. This creates a metallisation pattern so we can deposit aluminium on the back surface of the solar cell and create our metal contacts to both the P and N-type silicon simultaneously using a very cheap, low temperature pizza oven! And hey presto we've created a simple, low-cost solar cell without having to use expensive high tech equipment or high temperature processes!"
Nicole is busy creating prototypes of the device and working toward implementing the technology in a commercial production environment.
When Nicole's not in her lab, she enjoys hiking and has recently climbed Mt Kinabalu in Borneo. She likes nothing more than a good fancy dress party, preferably with an 80's theme so she can don her favourite fluoro tube skirt.
Nicole entered her research in the British Council Eureka Prize for Young leaders in Environmental Issues and Climate Change.
The University of New South Wales, NSW