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How high school physics can lead to an awesome renewable energy career

Renewable energy engineering careers are growing rapidly as the world moves to sustainable energy – but you’ll need physics to apply

As a Brisbane high school physics student in the 50s, a young Martin Green — now a professor and world-famous renewable energy engineer — might have been wondering exactly how he’d end up using everything he learned about atom models and vectors in class. 

Fast-forward to 2023, and Professor Green is now Scientia professor at the UNSW School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering (SPREE). In 1983, his team invented a solar cell – the PERC – at UNSW labs that today powers more than 90% of all new solar panel modules all over the world! Among loads of other awards, In 2022, Martin was the first Australian to win the prestigious Millennium Technology Prize for transforming the production of solar energy through the PERC cell tech.

Renewable energy engineering careers are growing rapidly as the world moves to sustainable energy. And to design, build and maintain renewable energy systems and technologies, we need more engineers – and that means we need more students studying physics! 

Those photons you learn about? Skilled engineers turn light (photons) into electricity (the flow of electrons). The challenge of doing this effectively is something that can transform society. And high school physics is where it all starts! 

Materials matter

In 2021, UNSW Engineering at SPREE alumni set a world record for the highest solar cell efficiency in silicon solar cells – currently the dominant solar cell technology. Solar cells can be made of a sandwich of materials: silicon forms the base level of a conductor in a solar cell, and a second layer on top of that can make a cell able to absorb even more of the light spectrum (vectors!) and convert it to electricity. That second layer is made of all kinds of interesting materials, like perovskites

Understanding just how to design these ‘sandwiches’, known as tandem cells, and put them together is another physics problem that is being worked on currently. Researchers and engineers need physics to help them understand what materials will work most effectively to produce the best solar cell, at the lowest cost and generating the most power. This all comes down to the manipulation of photons, one of the most amazing elements of physics to study

WATCH: Watch how engineers at UNSW Schools of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering solve problems. 

Renewable energy engineering careers that start with physics

There are so many cool careers out there for renewable energy engineers that start all with high school physics. 

Karina Boyle was President of UNSW’s Women in Renewable Energy Society, and did a combined commerce and engineering degree through SPREE at UNSW. She’s now a software engineer at Telsa in California.

Martha Lenio got her PhD in photovoltaic engineering from UNSW Sydney, and is now helping remote communities in northern Canada transition to renewable energy.

Dr Ivan Perez-Wurfl, Senior Lecturer at UNSW’s School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering, not only comes up with new fields of research in renewable energy, he also provides guidance to the university’s Sunswift Racing Team, a student-led solar electric vehicle project.

The basis for all of these exciting careers? High school physics. 

How is physics used in renewable energy engineering?

Learning about energy transfer? It is used in everything from converting sunlight to electricity to powering energy storage in hydropower systems. The whole world turns on energy and how we use it. 

Looking at the model of an atom? This can help you understand the flow of electrons in different materials, and how to move and optimise electrical energy flows. 

Stuck on Newton’s Law of Motion? If we didn’t understand gravity, we wouldn’t be able to harness and store green energy.

Studying high school physics might be tough at times – but the applications in renewable energy engineer careers are literally world-changing. And with more electric vehicles, better and cheaper green energy and batteries, there are countless careers to choose from.

READ MORE: What else do you need to be a great renewable energy engineer? Maths, of course. The maths career you hadn’t thought of yet: renewable energy engineering

How to become a renewable energy engineer

To become a renewable energy engineer, you could enrol in a specific undergraduate degree. UNSW Sydney’s School of Photovoltaics and Renewable Energy Engineering (SPREE) is one of the world’s leading research schools into renewable technologies. 

The required subjects for these degrees are physics and maths, so sticking with those subjects from early on will leave you in a great position to pursue an exciting career as a renewable energy engineer. 

To ask about studying renewable energy engineering, or to organise a class visit to the lab facilities at UNSW, please don’t hesitate to get in touch! You can also download our free Renewable Energy Engineer Job Kit to find out more about all the different career options for engineers in the field. 

This post was brought to you in partnership with UNSW SPREE. Find out more about studying renewable energy engineering here.

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