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Solar scientist wins Eureka's top gong
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|by Fairfax - Wednesday, 20 August 2008
The young PhD student's MacGuyver-like efforts to create a revolutionary solar cell using everyday items has won two Australian Museum Eureka Prizes - the nation's top science awards.
The 23-year-old took out the people's choice award as well as the prize for young leader in environmental science and climate change at Tuesday night's awards in Sydney.
Ms Kuepper developed and patented the iJET solar cell which can be made cheaply at low temperatures using items such as an inkjet printer, nail polish and a pizza oven.
The University of NSW student and lecturer hopes it will lead to green energy in developing nations, providing electricity to the world's two billion poorest people.
Her breakthrough was among an eclectic array of winners at the Eureka Prizes, dubbed the Oscars of Australian science.
Other prizes went to a scientist who discovered flourishing micro-wildlife beneath an area of WA's northwest long believed "dead", a research group that developed a filter allowing night vision goggles to deliver colour images, and a cheeky Year 8 student who found that cancelling school was an effective way to cut carbon emissions.
But it was Ms Kuepper's work developing solar technology using a low-cost inkjet printing process which captured the imagination.
Expert panels decide on the prizes, with the exception of the people's choice, this year awarded after a public vote of 16,000 Australians - more than 50 per cent being students.
"(It) gives students real-life role models in science," Australian Museum director Frank Howard said before the awards.
"I'm sure any parents would be delighted for their child to aspire to the heights that Nicole has reached at such a young age.
"Nicole's iJET solar cell will potentially bring affordable electricity to the poorest people in the world, but more than this, it will be clean and renewable."
Current production techniques for photovoltaic, or solar, cells make them expensive, but the iJET can be made without high-tech environments or components.
Ms Kuepper's school of photovoltaic and renewable energy engineering at the University of NSW also took out the Eureka Prize for innovative solutions to climate change, with the Sydney-based university taking out six of the 20 prizes.
Climate change dominated the prizes, but Australian scientists are also achieving breakthroughs in other areas.
Museum of Western Australia principal scientist Dr William Humphreys won the prize for outstanding taxonomic research for overturning a long-held misconception that groundwater in Australia's arid zones was lifeless.
His discovery of large quantities of new microscopic creatures beneath the Pilbara, the Kimberley, Cape Range and Christmas Island has led to a global renaissance in subterranean biology.
The University of Western Australia's microelectronic research group won the prize for outstanding science in support of defence or national security for developing the colour filter for night vision goggles.
It's believed the new sensors will save soldiers' lives, with potential for use by ground forces and unmanned planes, allowing them to scan for threats in cluttered environments from safer distances.
Daniel O'Doherty, a student at Pacific Hills Christian School in Sydney, won the school's prize for action against climate change with his video tackling transport emissions.
He found there was a 3:1 ratio of car to bus travel for school journeys and theorised that cancelling school would help save the planet, but also offered realistic suggestions to boost bus travel and offset emissions by tree planting.
Nicole Kuepper and Maurice Wells with Dr Richard Corkish, SPREE, Head of School.
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