Wilson da Silva

Science journalist, feature writer and editor.

Jan 16, 2018
Published on: The Australian
4 min read
UNSW Professor Stuart Wenham

Stuart Wenham, UNSW solar cell researcher.
Born July 15, 1957. Died December 23, aged 60.

By Wilson da Silva

Two days before Christmas, Professor Stuart Wenham — a pioneering Australian researcher and inventor who revolutionised solar cell technologies — passed away unexpectedly, leaving friends, colleagues and the world of photovoltaics shocked and saddened.

Diagnosed with malignant melanoma on September 8, he was responding well to treatment until suddenly taking a turn for the worse. At the age of 60, he died peacefully with family and close friends at his side.

Director of UNSW’s Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence, Wenham was a giant in the solar world whose innovation in university labs and on the factory floor has left a legacy of major advances.

He was the inventor of advanced hydrogenation technology, which boosts the working lifetime of solar cells a hundredfold. Using lasers to control the charge state of hydrogen atoms in a silicon wafer to correct deformities, the technology was heralded as a “breakthrough for silicon photovoltaics” by Britain’s Institution of Engineering and Technology when awarding him the 2013 AF Harvey engineering prize.

Wenham, who studied under UNSW colleague Martin Green, went on to collaborate on key research and earn his own global recognition, inventing or co-inventing eight classes of solar cell technologies that have been licensed around the world — including to Suntech Power, BP Solar and Samsung.

Born in Sydney to father Russel, an electrical engineer, he excelled academically and in sport, and graduated in 1975 from Kingsgrove High as vice-captain and dux.

He met his wife Michelle at the Uniting Church youth group and they had three children, Alison, Paul and Laura.

At UNSW, he studied a combined science and electrical engineering degree, graduating in 1981 with the university medal in electrical engineering. Working at Tideland Energy in Brookvale, on Sydney’s northern beaches, he helped set up Australia’s first solar cell manufacturing lines, bought out by BP Solar in 1985.

Wenham returned to UNSW to complete a PhD part-time under Green. Their collaboration led to advances that were licensed internationally, for which they were jointly awarded the 1999 Australia Prize.

During the 1990s, Green, Wenham and one of their standout PhD students from China, Shi Zhengrong, developed the thin-film crystalline-silicon-on-glass cells. When Shi returned to China in 2001, he set up Suntech Power with Wenham as his chief technology officer, and they quickly up-ended the global solar landscape.

In just five years, the cost of making panels dropped by a factor of 10, and Suntech quickly become the world’s largest solar cells manufacturer, and Shi the world’s first solar billionaire.

Wenham worked part-time at Suntech for a decade, spending weeks at a time in China and, at one point, managing 350 scientists and engineers on research projects funded by 5 per cent of the manufacturer’s annual revenues.

He obsessively focused on commercialisation — reducing cost per kilowatt, improving mass production and making photovoltaics more efficient. “Stuart was unique among the many researchers with whom I have worked in his prodigious memory, his powers of observation, his ability to see patterns in results eluding most of us and his ability for lateral thinking,” recalls Green.

Wenham is survived by his partner Ran Chen, his three children, his ex-wife Michelle, and his siblings David and Valmai.