The global population is consuming more than 14 terawatts of power every second. It is an amount of energy almost beyond comprehension, and yet by the year 2050 this consumption could double. Alternative energy researcher Associate Professor Udo Bach believes only a significant increase in solar energy use can satisfy this demand for power. Udo’s work has always been driven by an awareness that our modern society is under threat from its own lust for energy. It is the reason he travelled to Switzerland as a PhD student to work with world-renown energy scientist and inventor of the dye-sensitised solar cell, Professor Michael Grandauml;tzel at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne. Dye-sensitised solar cells potentially offer next generation advantages over conventional solar panels, especially in terms of simplicity and cost. Although the new cells have been the subject of great endeavour, their effectiveness has not been on par with high-performance silicon solar cells. This is where Udo’s work begins. Almost a decade after beginning his research with Professor Grandauml;tzel, Udo is now developing several new technologies to capture the potential of dye-sensitised cells. Working within the Victorian Consortium for Organic Solar Cells, Udo is confident that the new type of solar power has a key role to play in meeting the future energy needs of the global population, without irrevocably damaging the Earth. “Our contribution could be that we provide a disruptive photovoltaic technology, one which is a clear step from where we are now,” Udo says. “Currently photovoltaic technology is getting cheaper only in scale with the volume we produce. We are hoping that we can come up with something that is an important step, and will dramatically change the situation. “I’m almost certain that within the decade photovoltaics will become extremely important and play a major role in global energy. Soon we will see photovoltaics in a position where it is economically viable and people might opt for photovoltaics as an energy solution simply because it’s cheaper, not just because it’s cleaner.”
Udo is tackling the practical challenges of enhancing dye-sensitised cells through several different technologies. He has pioneered the theoretical foundations of boosting the output of organic cells by stacking them in tandem in a process similar to conventional solar cell arrangements. This process could boost energy conversion beyond current limits. He is also developing back-contact solar cells. This technique removes the collecting electrode from the top of cells and links the previously separated positive and negative charge collectors at the back of the cell, ending a problem of shading. Along with Monash colleagues, he is working to find non-corrosive alternatives to the liquids presently used to transport charge internally. Such a development would allow the use of new materials in cell construction, potentially leading to conversion increases. Udo’s energy work is complemented by his nanotechnology research as a Technology Research Fellow with The Melbourne Centre for Nanofabrication. He is engaged on a project where he is developing novel nanofabrication technology, combining conventional ‘top-down’ fabrication techniques with new ‘bottom-up’ assembly techniques. With the use of blue prints from conventional nanopatterns, he has created nanostructures from nanometre-sized building blocks. He will then be able to perfect a universal assembly technique for use in future generations of solar cells, computing devices and sensors.