PhD Research Student
Click here to see Nicole explain how solar cells work, courtesy University of New South Wales.
Click here to see a video of Nicole talking about her work.
Who do you work for?
I am a PhD student at the ARC Photovoltaics Centre for Excellence, part of the University of New South Wales. The centre, opened in June of 2003, is designed to be an environment for intensive research into silicon photovoltiacs.
What does your job involve?
In short – I am trying to save the world – one solar cell at a time! Through my PhD I am researching a new silicon solar cell called the iJET Cell that will be able to be manufactured in developing countries by using simple, inexpensive and widely available equipment such as inkjet printing. These new processing techniques will replace costly, high tech approaches currently being used to produce solar cells in developed or newly industrialised countries like China. Through my research I am also investigating new solar cell designs that will be able to make use of low-quality, low-cost silicon and significantly reduce the cost of photovoltaic electricity.
Why did you choose to be a systems engineer?
So far no solar cell manufacturing process has been found to be suitable for implementation in some of the least developed countries in the world and yet one-third of the world’s population does not have access to reliable electricity – that’s some 2 BILLION people! It is well known that there is a clear link between access to electricity and standards of living, as electricity enables people to (among other things) read at night, refrigerate vaccines and become informed about the world through radios or TVs. There is therefore an urgent need to address this inequality throughout the world and photovoltaic technology is well positioned to be a fundamental part of the solution!
I believe it is important that we look into appropriate technologies by taking high-tech processes like the manufacture of solar cells and making them applicable to low-tech environments. This way the people will be able to provide themselves with an affordable source of renewable electricity.
What has been one of your recent achievements?
Winning the Eureka Peoples Choice Award in 2008 for the iJET solar cell concept that might enable people in developing countries to produce their own photovoltaic cells at a significantly lower cost to what they are paying now for electricity.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
I enjoy having the freedom to explore new ideas and learn more and more about renewable energy every day. Working alongside other passionate and very clever researchers is also great fun!
What is the biggest problem you have to deal with over your career?
I faced the biggest problem in my working life when I first started working on my project. In the research world it is easy to become overwhelmed by how many exciting things there are to investigate and I found it hard to know where to start. But over time, you learn to prioritise and manage your own time better which means that you can break a seemingly huge mountain of problems down into solvable hills that instantly become easier to climb!
Are there any side benefits of having this job? (sport, recreation, travel etc)
In a nutshell – research is fun. I find I am constantly surrounded by inspired, creative people who really want to make a difference, be they my lab buddies or nutty professors! Another benefit associated with my job is that research is global – people all around the world are working day and night to achieve breakthroughs in renewable energy and the potential to travel and work in other interesting cultures is endless. For example UNSW has many close research collaborations with companies throughout Asia and I have been lucky enough to attend a training course in one of the world’s largest solar manufacturing plants and work in Taiwan this year.
What do you hope to be doing in ten years time?
In ten years time I hope to be playing a major role in the advancement of photovoltaic technology – be it in industry, academia or government. These are exciting times for the renewable energy industries and I can only imagine how much more exciting it’s going to get!
Why did you decide to go into this career?
I knew I wanted to work in an applied science field and renewable energy instantly fascinated me.
Were there any other special factors like work experience, family members/tradition, teachers, open-days etc that influenced your decision to take on your career?
I was one of those very odd children that loved to fill in maths colouring in books over dinner and given that both my parents studied maths for some 7 years at university this is hardly surprising. At school I really enjoyed science and maths but I knew I would never be satisfied studying a field for the sake of ‘knowledge’. I knew I wanted to apply my interest in science to a field that would make a difference. In years 11 and 12 at North Sydney Girls High School I had a great chemistry teacher – Mr Simpson – and he encouraged us to think about climate change and the role we could play in improving the world’s future. During yr 12 I stumbled upon the Photovoltaic and Solar Energy Engineering degree at UNSW and I knew I was hooked!