Increasingly efficient solar cells – University alumni Wei-Min Li pursues novel uses for Finnish ALD technique

Wei-Min Li, an alumni of the University of Helsinki, realised the significance of hard work and kindness during his time as a student. New opportunities arise for those who make the effort. Now, the company he founded is transforming the world by developing renewable energy production.

Leadmicro, a Chinese company established in 2015, has swiftly emerged as a leading manufacturer of atomic layer deposition (ALD) equipment and a significant player in the solar power industry. The devices produced by the company can be used to manufacture increasingly efficient solar cells.

The story of the company has strong links to Finland and the University of Helsinki. Leadmicro’s founder Wei-Min Li, 55, acquired his learning precisely from the University of Helsinki, and the ALD technique used in the company’s products is a Finnish invention from the 1970s.

“I arrived in Finland in 1990 when I was only 22. I wanted to go abroad to see the world, to expand my views. A family of friends who had lived in Finland for a while praised the country, so I applied for a student place at the Helsinki University of Technology and the University of Helsinki. I was admitted to both,” Li reminisces.

At the Helsinki University of Technology, he studied physical chemistry, while at the University of Helsinki he studied inorganic chemistry. Kumpula Campus triumphed over Otaniemi, as the friendly reception at the Department of Chemistry impressed the young man.

Li had begun his studies in China in the field of silicate technology. Studying in Chinese and Finnish universities of the 1990s was very different. In Helsinki, Li was surprised by the freedom of studies: courses could be chosen according to your personal interests, and the schedule of studies was designed independently.

“Studying was also hard, since as a foreigner I had to personally take care of my subsistence. In hindsight, that time made me very independent and taught hard work. I understood that opportunities will come my way if I just keep at it.”

During his studies, Li established lifelong friendships, including finding love in the laboratory. In 1992, Li met his future wife.

“In my studies, I understood the importance of not only hard work, but also kindness and friendship. This is what I learned from the University community – from my fellow students and staff.”

Making the impossible possible

Li graduated with a master’s degree in the mid-1990s, when the aftershocks of the depression were still rocking Finland. Luckily, Li was admitted to postgraduate education and began working at the ALD laboratory of Professor Markku Leskelä.

“My doctoral thesis focused on luminescent materials, and I utilised the ALD technique in my work. Since then, I’ve spent my entire career working with ALD in one way or another.”

After receiving his doctoral degree, Li worked at, among others, the Finnish companies Microchemistry and Picosun, both well-known developers of atomic layer deposition.

ALD is a nanometre-scale thin-film deposition technique that has enabled, for example, the production of modern microprocessors.

In the mid-2010s, Li returned to China in pursuit of business opportunities. In 2015, he and his partners established Leadmicro, which was originally intended to focus on the automation of solar power production. For Li, solar power was an entirely new field.

“I wanted to see whether the ALD technique was suited to solar cell manufacturing. Others were very suspicious, as the technique has been considered slow and expensive. After all, solar cells should be produced quickly and cheaply,” Li chuckles.

In the laboratory, however, ALD appeared to function well. Cells manufactured using the technique were clearly more efficient than others. After solving a slew of technical problems, the company built a prototype and launched serial production. Now, Leadmicro is a leading business in the field in China.

“I always say that our company makes the ALD technique, which comes from Finland, available to humanity. Today, solar cells produced with the help of our devices generate roughly 300 gigawatts of electricity, and the figure is constantly growing. You can say that we are contributing to changing the world.”

In the future, Li wishes to identify more new application opportunities for the ALD technique. He believes the sky is the limit.

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