What do you do when you are looking for energy solutions for the United Kingdom?
If you are UK sustainable energy advocate Stuart McBain, you seek out the latest in solar technology from the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, and charge around Australia in an electric car to test it out.
McBain says his interest in renewable energy was sparked at age nine during the OPEC oil embargo. Two years later, students were shown a film that showed the crisis was over and there was 60 years’ worth of oil left.
Except, McBain realised at the age of 11, that was enough for the adults’ lifespan, but not for theirs.
He became the first person to circumnavigate both the United Kingdom and Iceland in an electric vehicle to prove there were no limits to EV range in those countries.
Now, his journey has sparked him to start Charge Around Australia (CAA), a 15,097 kilometre trip around the country’s extremities in a Tesla powered by solar energy. It’s a world first that includes the use of portable printed solar cell sheets to allow off-grid electric car charging. The recyclable solar cell sheets were created by physicist Professor Paul Dastoor from the University of Newcastle, New South Wales, and are manufactured using conventional 2D printers. They are described as being similar in thickness and appearance to a chip packet.
Dastoor says this is real-world testing for printed solar.
“This is a rare and valuable opportunity for testing and feedback on our printed solar technology, in the field, in diverse environments,” he says.
“CAA will not only help us refine our technology as we progress toward commercial roll-out, but may also help inform future designs and destinations for remote roadside charging stations aimed at solving the challenge of long-haul electric vehicle use in our country and others like it.”
McBain is now at the pointy end of the experiment, and one of the pointy ends of Australia, talking to Cosmos on Day 34 of the journey from his latest location at Derby, in Western Australia.
He has travelled 7372km of the 15,097km journey, setting off three days later than planned following a hold-up with materials for the panels due to COVID-19.
“With a pencil and piece of paper, we had worked out we could travel 160km of distance with 18 panels that would be charged with 10 hours of clear sunlight,” McBain says.
“We were only able to leave with eight panels and it was raining. The sun strength wasn’t anything like we had anticipated. It has been shaded and rainy, there have been a lot of limitations, so we haven’t had anything like the distance I was expecting to get.”
Despite this, the electricity supply has not failed and the challenge is on track to give presentations at the more than 70 schools it has lined up around the country. They have managed 94km of distance on solar energy a day.
The small team rolls out the solar panels each day at schools and recreation grounds to soak up the sun.
An incident in Fitzroy Crossing, WA, the day before they landed in Derby proved a true outback test.
McBain was rudely introduced to the small dust tornadoes he has been told are known as willy-willies or whirly-whirlies.
“We were at a recreation ground and the groundsman was worried about the sprinkler system so we rolled them out in a dusty area,” he says. “The willy-willy went right on top of the panels.
“Two lads from the university spent some time pulling them apart and it turns out we now have two live units, but we have six more on the way. In an ideal world, we would have had up to 14. In a few days we will be back to eight.”
“But no one has done this before, and it’s hard. We are coming across things we hadn’t planned on.”
McBain says his discussions with the University of Newcastle have shown him the aim is not to replace traditional solar panels with paper panels, but to produce the cheapest form of engineering them, and to make the product and the process 100% recyclable.
“The first application would be in places where traditional panels would not work, like factory and warehouse roofs,” he says.
“The weight of traditional panels could cause the roof to collapse.”
But lightweight paper panels can be taped with something as low-tech as double-sided stickytape for entire roof coverage to match the capability of a smaller number of traditional panels. Solar panels usually have about a 25% conversion efficiency, while the printed solar panels have only 1% conversion efficiency.
The University of Newcastle also envisages the lightweight panels could be used for disaster relief to avoid the necessity for heavy traditional panels to be freighted in, and allow people to have power for charging phones and other necessities. The panels also may be of use in remote areas.
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Dastoor has said global interest in printed solar is at an all-time high, and an advanced manufacturing facility in NSW was their goal.
“We have a world-class manufacturing facility at the University’s Newcastle Institute for Energy and Resources (NIER), which has been generously supported by the Australian National Fabrication Facility (ANFF),” Dastoor says.
“This print facility can manufacture hundreds of metres of material a day, however we’re now reaching the point where we need to significantly scale this level of production.
“This technology will really disrupt and revitalise the contracting print industry. Printed solar is manufactured on conventional printers – our lab-scale system previously manufactured wine labels.
“As a diverse team of physicists, chemists, engineers and educators, we’re considering not just the scaling of material production, but the education and training framework that will wrap around the industry to train and retrain an entirely new workforce.”
In the meantime, schools and other facilities around the edge of the country are being introduced to printed solar by the Charge Around Australia Tesla.
They have two different workshops, involving explanation of the solar panels, an exercise in building solar cells to look at the energy caused by different colours of the light spectrum, a close look at the solar cell charging process, and a physical activity to convert their own energy into use for a video game.
McBain says their visits to remote and regional areas has been an eye-opener for some students, including one place where there were only five children at the school, none of whom had ever seen an electric vehicle.
He says in school visits, about 75% of students say they have solar panels, while next to none have electric vehicles.
“I tell them that in the UK, it is the reverse,” he says. “Australia has huge buildings with loads and loads of roof space and sunlight.”
Australians, McBain says, are welded to the idea of having to go to the petrol station for fuel. If your home and car convert the sun for free, this is not necessary.
While McBain says he thought Iceland, that generates 99% of its power from renewable energy, was his favourite country, that could change.
“The children I have spoken to seem quite comfortable for the future, and the reason is they know their parents do care. They know they do need to do something about it,” he says.
“In Australia, for sure, there is a much, much clearer understanding of the issues [than in the UK] – we are seeing solar much more advanced. I think Australia has the ability to achieve that future – there is so much sunlight and so much space.
“The energy transition can happen really quickly.”
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