A world-first online solar factory simulator allowing students to race for maximum efficiencies and gain real-world experience of the cell production line has been launched at UNSW, extending the University’s leadership in the field.
Developed by PV Lighthouse in collaboration with UNSW and supported by the Australian Centre for Advanced Photovoltaics (ACAP)* and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA), PV Factory uses the latest cloud technologies to simulate a solar cell production line for interactive teaching.
Students can manufacture a solar wafer from scratch and experiment with different parameters to try and maximise its efficiency – a process that would be prohibitively expensive in the real world.
A leaderboard pits users against each other in a race for efficiency across 12 production steps, with students competing against lecturers and even global photovoltaics’ executives.
More than 500,000 cells were trialled during the pilot program at UNSW in 2014 and double that number is expected this semester, with courses using the platform at UNSW and Arizona State University in the US. The platform is free to use and has already attracted significant industry interest.
Fourth-year photovoltaics/commerce student Daniel Chen beat classmates to finish top of the leaderboard as part of an assignment last year and said the gamification aspect had him hooked. “There were a few sleepless nights, with everyone competing in the last few days before it was due,” he said.
Chen ran more than 300 batches to get his top score and said the platform enhanced his education because he could put theoretical learning into practice.
“Most of us have never experienced a production line before and I doubt we ever will, a real one, so this is a good insight into how a production line works,” he said.
“What we learn in our lecture we can actually see in performance – it replicates what we do in real life.”
UNSW senior lecturer Dr Alison Lennon, who initiated the project and ran the Photovoltaic Technology and Manufacturing course, said: “It was great to see how quickly students could put their learning into practice and how enthusiastic they were about being part of the development process for PV Factory.
“Even after the course finished, many continued to use PV Factory to improve on their manufacturing process, competing with others from industry and university in the pursuit of ever increasing solar cell efficiencies.”
ACAP chief operating officer and UNSW senior lecturer Dr Richard Corkish said anyone with an interest in solar technology could log on and experiment with the software.
“One of the key goals of this project is to improve the education of solar engineers which should lead to better and lower-cost solar technologies for the future,” said Dr Corkish.
*ACAP is supported by $33.1 million in funding from ARENA