Professor Stuart Wenham FTSE FIEEE FIEAust
Obituary written by Professor Martin Green, AM FRS FAA FTSE
It is with great sense of loss that we report the sudden passing of Professor Stuart Wenham, Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence at the University of New South Wales (UNSW) Sydney and recipient of the 2013 IET A F Harvey Engineering Research Prize.
Stuart was one of the world’s foremost photovoltaic device researchers, inventing or co-inventing several solar cell structures brought into manufacturing. These include the buried contact solar cell, marketed under licence by BP Solar from 1992-2006 as the company’s “Saturn” product and the self-aligned, selective emitter cell marketed by Suntech as the company’s “Pluto” product from 2009-2013, both with over AUD $1 billion in sales. He was also co-inventor of the advanced hydrogenation processes crucial to the recent uptake of the PERC cell (Passivated Emitter Solar Cell), accounting for over AUD $10 billion in sales in 2017, with work in this area supported by the Harvey prize money.
Stuart also contributed to the recent cost reductions apparent for photovoltaics through assisting former UNSW colleague, Dr Zhengrong Shi, establish and scale up manufacturing in China. This was initially via process refinement and staff training, beginning in 2002. In 2005, Stuart was appointed Chief Technology Officer (part-time) prior to Suntech’s listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Stuart was very effective in the preceding “roadshows” intended to encourage strong investor support, undoubtedly contributing to this becoming the largest technology float of 2005.
Stuart was born in Sydney, completing the BSc/BEng double degree at UNSW in 1980, topping the year and receiving the University Medal. In his final year, he took Professor Martin Green’s postgraduate solar cell course, stimulating his interest in photovoltaics as well as lifelong friendship and collaboration with Professor Green. On graduating, Stuart worked with Professor Green’s former PhD student, Dr Bruce Godfrey, establishing Australia’s first solar cell production line. One customer was BP Solar who bought the line in 1985 when BP decided to manufacture its own cells, since it was producing the best cells then available.
Stuart returned to UNSW in 1983, employed on the team developing the world’s first 20% efficient silicon cell, achieved in 1985, also playing a key role in increasing this efficiency to 25% in 1999. In parallel to the earlier work, he continued his part-time PhD under Professor Green’s supervision, working on the laser processing of cells. In 1984, patent applications were filed on the buried contact cell, mentioned above, later assessed by the Australian Academy of Technology and Engineering as one of the “Top 100 Australian inventions of the 20th century”. Stuart was awarded his PhD in 1986 and was appointed as Lecturer at UNSW in 1988, Professor in 1998 and Scientia Professor in 2003.
Stuart was a superb teacher, winning the 1995 Vice-Chancellor's Award for "Teaching Excellence." In 1999, he was awarded an ARC Key Centre in Photovoltaic Engineering, initiating the launch of the world’s first undergraduate degree programme in photovoltaics in 2000 and formation of a separate School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering in 2006. Approximately 500 undergraduate students are presently enrolled, together with 100 PhD students. In 2003, the Key Centre was merged with an ARC Special Research Centre awarded to Professor Green, to form the ARC Photovoltaics Centre of Excellence, with Stuart as Director until the present.
Stuart was awarded several local and international prizes during his career, additional to the 2013 IET A F Harvey Engineering Research Prize. These include the 1992 CSIRO External Medal and the 1999 Australia Prize, both jointly with Professor Green, plus the 2009 IEEE William R. Cherry Award and the 2011 IEEE J. J. Ebers Award, the Electron Devices Society’s most prestigious award, as sole awardee. He was selected 2010 Professional Engineer of the Year by the Institute of Engineers, Australia and as one of “Australia’s Top 100 Most Influential Engineers” by the Institute for the following four years.
A memorial service was held on 8 January 2018, at the Sir John Clancy Auditorium on UNSW’s Kensington campus. Over 800 people from around the world attended, including many former students.