Something New Under The Sun
The back story
PHOTO: Katharine Stevenson
What first caught Richard Stevenson’s eye was the sheer scale of production. First Solar, a maker of solar cells based in Tempe, Ariz., had just announced it was ”going to open four more factories in Malaysia—substantial numbers, really,” he says.
That was a year ago. Stevenson wrote it up as a news item for Compound Semiconductor , the industry magazine he works for in Bristol, England. But when IEEE Spectrum invited him to write on the most compelling thing he could think of, this is the topic he chose: how did First Solar take cadmium telluride, which has been kicking around for decades, and fashion it into large solar panels more cost-effective than anything else on the market?
In trying to answer that question he came up against a still more puzzling one: why the company absolutely refused to talk [see "First Solar: Quest for the $1 Watt" in this issue]. ”I was really shocked that they were so incommunicative,” he says.
The reticence only heightened his curiosity—and his determination to tell the story. So he studied a handful of published papers, interviewed experts outside the company, and pieced together how First Solar had cracked at least part of the manufacturing problem that blocks the industry’s way to its ultimate goal—selling photovoltaic electricity at a rate comparable to that of fossil-fueled generation.
Stevenson’s sleuthing called on both his journalistic and his technical expertise. He got a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge by designing an optical scanning microscope and using it to study conductive polymers. The degree was in physics, he says, ”but in the United States, this work would be done in a materials-science or an electrical engineering department.” That argument—together with his love of vinyl records and contract bridge—makes him okay in our book.
Stevenson found his calling as a journalist after leaving Cambridge in 2001 and spending three years working as a process engineer for a supplier of semiconductor wafers. The company was buffeted by the dot-com bust, a lot of the fun had gone, and he decided he’d rather explain engineering than actually do it. In fact, he realized that that was what he’d always preferred. ”I quite enjoyed writing my Ph.D. thesis, and most people around me hated it,” he remembers.
He took a job at Compound Semiconductor , as features editor, and began writing and editing articles—including a few by his former colleagues. He hasn’t looked back.