Solar cell researcher and future Vice-Chancellor
Anders Hagfeldt has spent a large part of his life researching the chemistry behind solar cells, for the past six years in Switzerland with researchers from around the world. He will soon be returning to Uppsala University, where he will be taking up the post of vice-chancellor in January 2021.
The Swedish government took its formal decision on 19 November, but he was proposed as new vice-chancellor of Uppsala University way back in June. When we talk on Zoom a couple of months later, the news has had time to sink in a bit.
“It will be extremely exciting and a wonderful experience. That said, wrapping up my research in Lausanne is quite a business. When one makes this kind of decision the effects are not limited to oneself.”
Hagfeldt is currently leading a group of some 20–25 researchers at the Laboratory of Photomolecular Science (EPFL) studying Grätzel cells, or dye-sensitised solar cells, in close collaboration with Michael Grätzel, after whom the cells are named.
This is a field that he entered as a young doctoral student at Uppsala University.
“I was halfway through my doctoral studies and had three different supervisors – in physical chemistry, physics and quantum chemistry. I was involved in various things out of curiosity but couldn’t really make it all hang together. Then there it was, this mysterious Grätzel cell in a material that really shouldn’t work. Although it had all of the properties that a solar cell really shouldn’t have, it worked.”
Everything suddenly fell into place. He brought all of his varied subject knowledge to bear on a fundamental explanation of how these new cells worked.
“We did pioneering work in Uppsala building up theories on how the solar cells worked. I then went to Lausanne as a postdoc in 1993–94, so it has always been a bit like home.”
Grätzel cells use dyes and titanium oxide nanoparticles to achieve a photoelectric effect. The solar cells are currently used in glass facades and as building elements, as they can be manufactured as half-transparent in a range of colours. While not as efficient as some other solar cells, they can be used indoors to capture and create energy from diffuse light.
“Indoors, the efficiency of Grätzel cells is up there with any other technology. There are many applications in the Internet of Things, where a solar cell can generate electricity from interior light to replace or supplement batteries.”
Another breakthrough came a few years ago in the form of the perovskite solar cell, which was discovered as a result of material research related to Grätzel cells.
“The breakthrough came in 2012, since when the technology has gone from strength to strength until today it is as efficient as the best silicon solar cells. Our research group holds world records for efficiency in both perovskite and Grätzel solar cells.”
Aside from his success as a researcher, Anders Hagfeldt has received awards for supervising doctoral students and postdoctoral fellows – something he is immensely proud and pleased about.
“I was delighted to be nominated by the research group and to then receive the award was naturally a bonus.”
The joy of helping others to succeed was something he discovered as a young table tennis coach in Norrköping.
“It was great to train youngsters and see how they developed. I think that same feeling has returned as a research supervisor. There’s nothing more enjoyable than when a doctoral student turns up excited about an idea – when one realises that they have begun to think and create ideas.”
There are many parallels with table tennis, or indeed sport in general.
In fact, before arriving at Uppsala University in 1984, Anders Hagfeldt faced a choice between a career as a table tennis coach or studying physical chemistry. The choice was not difficult given the attractions of a research career and after only two years of studies he was offered the opportunity to begin conducting research.
“I enjoyed physical chemistry so much that I asked if I could work there as an assistant over the summer. I got the job and one coffee break my supervisor, Sten-Eric Lindquist, spontaneously asked if I would like to do a PhD. I walked straight over to the telephone and called my mother. It felt fantastic to be asked!”
It was that simple. Since that first summer job, Hagfeldt has remained steadfastly on the same path of pursuing solar energy.
“Back then, solar energy was more a beautiful idea; nobody really took it seriously in the eighties. It stayed that way until work started in earnest on silicon solar cells. Today, there is a great deal happening – there is rapid growth and a large industry.”
Anders Hagfeldt was a member of the team who built up the Ångström Solar Centre (ÅSE) in Uppsala in 1996, a programme funded by Mistra and the Swedish Energy Agency with the stated requirement that research results should benefit Swedish industry.
“At the time, it was new to think in terms of industrial and economic applications and to examine the implications of scaling up the technology. In this regard we were quite pioneering and it was a very successful project.”
ÅSE programme director Lennart Malmqvist became something of a mentor to Hagfeldt, demonstrating what it meant to take a technology from the laboratory to commercialisation and industrial application.
“It was gratifying to gain an insight into how to create and run a company, something that is quite different to the academic way of working.”
Today, Hagfeldt is the holder of 10–15 patents and as a researcher he has collaborated with both large and small companies. He himself runs a company with four employees, selling materials and research equipment for solar cells to companies and higher education institutions.
Another important part of his professional life is his international network. He has conducted research as a visiting professor or adjunct professor in China, France, Korea, Singapore, Saudi Arabia, India and Spain. His research group is also comprised of many different nationalities.
“There are people from different cultures, religions and backgrounds working together. It is a kind of social exchange that I consider very privileged, particularly in today’s society where many forces are driving isolation and an ‘us against them’ mentality... The University has a very important role to play in this context.”
Is this something you want to work on as vice-chancellor?
“Yes, I hope so. We are increasingly seeing authoritarian states, climate change, pandemics and so on, all of which demand global initiatives. There are any number of examples demonstrating why we need to educate young people who can make a difference. Uppsala University can, and indeed already does, play a crucial role in the world.”
20 november 2020
Facts: Anders Hagfeldt
Title: Professor of Physical Chemistry at EPFL in Switzerland. Taking up the post of Vice-Chancellor of Uppsala University on 1 January 2021. Member of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences and the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA).
Leisure pursuits: Read lots of fiction and greatly enjoy history. Play the drums in a band in Uppsala. We like to improvise and mostly play music from the 1960s: Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and blues.
Family: Two adult children and wife.
Last book read: The latest by Håkan Nesser, Den sorgsne busschauffören från Alster [The Sorrowful Bus Driver from Alster]. It’s the same old Håkan Nesser, he’s fun to read.
I have my best ideas: When I’m out walking. I enjoy hiking, which is of course very appropriate in Switzerland. Preferably in the mornings – I’m beginning to get a bit tired in the evenings in my old age.
People who inspire me: There are so many, at various stages of life. As a student, one person who inspired me scientifically was Richard Feynman. I got hold of one of his books and then I read them all. They explained the thinking behind research and science. Whenever I feel that I need a reminder of why this is so much fun, I can just open up at a random page to recapture that feeling of excitement.
Dream for the future: Nothing in particular; actually, I feel privileged to have experienced so much. I am just grateful to have been a doctoral student and professor, to have travelled and collaborated at this level. The most important things are in one’s personal life; for example, I recently became a grandparent.