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Solar Energy: It's All in the Application

Courtesy National Renewable Energy Laboratory (Credit: Warren Gretz)

Trained in physics, solar-technology researcher Stefano Benagli says a scientific career in the solar-energy industry sector means spelling R&D with a small r and a capital D. Benagli works as a process engineer for the Switzerland-based high-tech firm Unaxis. Like others working in the field, Benagli emphasises that research in this sector is not of the blue-sky variety; it's all about lowering costs and making products that can succeed in a competitive marketplace. For scientists who are comfortable embracing these priorities, the solar-energy job market looks sunny.

Benagli has taken a hands-on approach to science since his teenage days "playing with a toy transistor box." He went on from there to study physics at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH) in Lausanne, where he met and was inspired by solar-energy researcher Michael Grätzel, a faculty member who invented a seminal solar cell based on dye-sensitised films. Thanks to collaborations at Lausanne, Benagli got the opportunity to do his diploma thesis (equivalent to a master's thesis) at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia, which Benagli calls "one of the most important centres for photovoltaics solar-energy engineering."

Stefano Benagli

Benagli returned to Switzerland and earned his diploma in 2002; at that point, he was keen to continue research in solar energy. "I wanted to do a Ph.D., but it was also very important to get in touch with industry," he says--so he joined Arvind Shah's lab in the Institute of Microtechnology (IMT) at the University of Neuchâtel in Switzerland, which allowed him to work in an academic setting while also giving him access to several industrial collaborators. At Neuchâtel, he worked on amorphous and microcrystalline silicon for thin film solar modules, in collaboration with Unaxis. One year into the project, he joined Unaxis as a regular employee, developing and scaling up his IMT work and adapting it to Unaxis's existing manufacturing technology. Using "about 10 years of university research, we [at Unaxis] invested in making some small changes," says Benagli. The result? "This year we received orders for a module production capacity of more that 40 megawatts." [UPDATE: Unaxis has since told Science Careers their orders for this year come to 60 megawatts.]

Career good luck

Ilka Luck has a taste for applied work. Indeed, she has only ever taken on projects that have practical, real-world value. "I always focused on something close to an application. I always needed that prospect," she says. Like Benagli, Luck is a physicist by training. For her diploma thesis, she worked on the characterisation of solar cells at the Universities of Dortmund and Bochum in Germany. She was hooked. "I enjoyed it very much," she says. "I knew that I wanted to go into more depth."

Luck then moved to Berlin for her Ph.D. to work on a solar-energy collaboration between the Hahn-Meitner Institute (HMI) and the Free University of Berlin. In Martha Lux-Steiner's lab, she investigated copper-indium-sulfide (CIS), which has photovoltaic properties. After she finished her Ph.D. in 1997, she was offered a project-management position at HMI on a European Union-funded research project that had several industrial collaborators. During this period, she helped develop CIS technology to the point at which it was suitable for industrial use.

Together with HMI colleague Nikolaus Meyer, she started a new company, Sulfurcell, in 2000. The company's core strategy was to refine and scale up CIS technology that "already worked excellently on a university-lab scale." After several years of industrial development, Sulfurcell's CIS solar modules went to market this year.

Ilka Luck ( right) with Nikolaus Meyer, her colleague and co-founder of Sulfurcell, in 2003 just before they set up pilot production in Berlin.

Capital D, small r

Work in industry-- this industry in particular--requires a certain mindset. "I was always attracted to developing a final product, a product to sell," says Benagli. "At university, you can always keep testing. In industry, it has to be correct, but you have to find fast ways. Sometimes I would like to do more basic research, but now in our labs we are really in a development phase.." Arvind Shah says that Benagli has the right mindset. He--Benagli--is able to work to tight deadlines and is "practically orientated and realistic."

"You shouldn't be interested in basic research if you wanted to work in industry," says Luck, because in industry, "life is simple." The only things that matter, she says, are "cost ... and device reliability." That makes Luck's skills and interests a good match for industry, says Lux-Steiner, her Ph.D. supervisor. "She accepts technological challenges and looks for the most appropriate remedy to crack it."


The sector's employers are not hung up on qualifications, but they do value experience. "Whether you have a Ph.D. or not is of no importance," says Luck. What matters instead is the right experience and the right approach. Benagli takes a similar attitude, saying that, although he would like to finish his Ph.D. someday, "not having a Ph.D. is not a big disadvantage. There is no rule."

Far more important than a Ph.D. are the skills needed to bring a project to a rapid and successful conclusion--such as the ability to communicate and work as part of a team. Benagli says that at university, "there were more brilliant students than me--for example, better mathematicians." But his other skills have compensated for these relative shortcomings, such as the fact that he works well in teams. Luck, too, believes that such skills are essential in an industrial environment and seeks those skills when hiring: "If you're not able to communicate, you won't be of any help," she says, so she looks for people who can explain details clearly and convey a sense of passion for their work.

A young industry

Many solar-energy companies are small and medium-sized enterprises working hard to develop products that will secure a place for them in the market. This has advantages and disadvantages. As the co-founder of a start-up, Luck gets great satisfaction from "setting up and defining standards. You really get to influence things." But she notes that in a relatively young industry, "the pay is not as good as in more established industries."


Both Benagli and Luck say the job market in solar energy is bright and probably will continue to grow. "There is a definite need for qualified people," says Luck--so much so that industry is approaching academics in search of recruits. "There is a big demand," says Shah, Benagli's adviser at Neuchâtel. "Industry is asking us for people. There is an increasing capacity [to fill]." Lux-Steiner agrees: "There are not enough educated people to fill the companies' shortages." But Shah warns that the sector is not yet secure. In such a price-sensitive industry, variables such as the supply of silicon feedstock could jeopardise the sector's competitiveness. "There is a big demand [for solar energy], but we have to meet it. The technology price must go down," he says.


Although the challenges of working in this young sector are considerable, these researchers say, the rewards are proportionate. "I always wanted to do something with renewable energies--something for the planet," says Benagli. Luck says the environmental aspect is definitely a perk. "People identify themselves with sustainable energies," she says, so they value very highly their work in this sector.

Anne Forde is European editor North and East for Science's Next Wave.

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