Australian Energy Research Laboratories (AERL) was originally founded by Stuart Watkinson (BE Elec. Eng., Grad. M.I.E.A) in 1985, after the development of the “Power Optimizer”, a revolutionary solution to a complex problem.
Unlike many inventors, Stuart possessed not only a great idea, but also the entrepreneurial skill to turn it in to a commercially viable product. The “Power Optimizer” would eventually come to be known as the AERL MAXIMIZER™, the world’s first truly Universal Maximum Power Point Tracker (MPPT).
After the completion of his thesis, titled “The Generation of Electricity from Solar Energy”, Stuart devised an electronic unit that would efficiently extract the maximum electrical power from a small photo-voltaic array, and deliver it to a DC electric motor to assist in propelling a 4-rider solar tandem pushbike.
The pushbike, “Solar Tandem”, was a unique vehicle designed to combine human effort – in the form of pedal power – with electrical energy from solar cells to create an energy-efficient method to transport 4 riders at unusually high speeds. The experiment intended to prove that a hybrid system of human and photovoltaic [PV] energy can eliminate the need for conventional batteries, while minimizing the size of the PV array required for a given application.
Winning the Race and the Patent for “Power Optimizer” – the first MAXIMIZER™ MPPT Solar Charge Controller
In September of 1984, the “Solar Tandem” was entered in the Courier Mail’s “Great Paper Chase” from Cairns to Brisbane – a special 1000km “Mall to Mall” race held annually in Queensland, Australia. The “Solar Tandem” took Equal First Prize for “Engineering and Innovation” and shortly after, Stuart filed the provisional patent for his invention which he named the “Power Optimizer”.
The fledgling “Power Optimizer” device, produced in a small home laboratory during a two-week vacation from University, was unique. It leveraged a remarkable and little known electrical relationship that exists between solar photovoltaic cells and provided a comparatively simple, innovative solution to an otherwise very complex problem.
After graduating from University with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, Stuart joined the South East Queensland Electricity Board in February 1985, working in the field of power system engineering and power electronic design. While taking unpaid leave in June of 1985, Stuart explored the Canadian, North American and Japanese markets with an early prototype of his “Power Optimizer” device, presenting it at the biennial Solar World Conference in Montreal, Canada, where he received encouraging approval from delegates.
Upon returning to Australia, Stuart’s spare time was dedicated to his design efforts where he enthusiastically concentrated on tailoring a commercial product to meet the diverse requirements of overseas markets. By September 1985, Stuart’s development efforts had resulted in an important breakthrough; overcoming the limitations of the original “Power Optimizer” design. This new version combined some of the features of his original design with the more recent innovation to become what would be known as the world’s first MPPT Solar Charge Controller.
Early Field Trial Highlights
AERL’s Remarkable Achievements Recognised
Stuart’s developmental efforts went from strength to strength, and in 1986, AERL was recognized for its achievements with the “1986 Award for Excellence in Innovation” from the Queensland Innovation Centre. That same year, AERL also received the Queensland ”Austrade Qantas Export Award for Initiative and Enterprise” from The Australian Trade Commission (Austrade).
Launch into the Cathodic Protection Market
Shortly after the release of the MAXIMIZER™, AERL began development of a low-cost, compact and highly specialized power electronic Cathodic Protection controller for use in off-grid Cathodic Protection systems protecting oil, gas and water pipelines. In early 1989, AERL’s first range of high-efficiency ICCP CATHODIC CONVERTERS™ was launched. As with the MAXIMIZER™, AERL’s specially designed Cathodic Protection controllers quickly developed a worldwide reputation for efficiency and reliability.
The World Solar Challenge
In the late 1980’s, AERL further expanded its footprint in the solar energy market by developing a specialised lightweight version of the MAXIMIZER™ for use in Solar Racing Cars, named the “Race Trim Mini MAXIMIZER™”. AERL quickly developed a reputation within the International Solar Car “fraternity” for supplying highly efficient, reliable and robust Solar Racing Car MPPT Solar Charge Controllers. By 1990, 8 of the top 10 finishers in the World Solar Challenge, the world’s most prestigious Solar Racing Car event in the world, raced with an AERL MAXIMIZER™ . AERL itself had an entry in the World Solar Car Challenge that year, winning the Lead-Acid Battery Category and taking 6th place overall in a field of 36 entrants.
Racing Into the ’90s
Thanks to AERL’s success in the 1990 Solar Race Car Challenge, over 75% of the teams competing in the World Solar Challenge and US Solar Car Races held between 1993 and 2007 used the AERL MAXIMIZER™ MPPT Solar Charge Controller. More than 1000 specialised Solar Race Car MAXIMIZER™ MPPT Solar Charge Controllers have been shipped to more than 200 teams worldwide, including over 60 of the world’s leading universities.
In 1992, AERL moved to new facilities and expanded its operations to meet the exploding demand for its products. Over the ensuing years, AERL continued to manufacture and distribute its revolutionary products around the world while further improving and developing the range. In the early 2000’s, AERL continued the expansion of its product range, launching MPPT Solar Charge Controllers suitable for use in both Micro Hydro and Micro Wind Turbine applications.
A Cool Change
By 2006, extraordinary developments in component technology made it possible for AERL to develop an extremely compact and lightweight, but most importantly, more efficient, version of the MAXIMIZER™ MPPT Solar Charge Controller.
Trials of the new MAXIMIZER™ achieved even greater operating efficiencies than before (up to 99%), resulting in ultra-low heat generation and the removal of the bulky heatsinks from the product.
This new version of the AERL MAXIMIZER™ was promptly named the COOLMAX™. By early 2008, AERL was preparing to launch a major marketing campaign to promote it’s new and improved revolutionary products.
Sadly, Stuart Watkinson, lost his 15-year battle with the rare auto-immune disease Churg-Strauss Syndrome, passing away on June 23rd, 2008.
Stuart was well respected and widely regarded as a pioneer within the renewable energy industry for his work on the development of Maximum Power Point Tracking. This technology was responsible for drastically improving the commercial viability of photovoltaic energy generation, paving the way for household and commercial solar power as we know it today.
To learn more about Churg-Strauss Syndrome and help in the battle to defeat this deadly disease, please click here.
The End of an Era
Stuart’s untimely passing in 2008 marked more than just the loss of a pioneer in the renewable energy industry; it signified the end of an era for AERL. Stuart’s vision, dedication, and innovative spirit had been the driving force behind the company, propelling it from a small home laboratory experiment to a renowned international name in the field of solar energy. His inventions and pioneering work on the development of Maximum Power Point Tracking laid the foundation for modern solar energy systems, changing the landscape and economics of a fledgling renewable energy industry.
For AERL, Stuart was the heart and soul. His boundless energy, passion for innovation, and tireless drive had been the pillars upon which the company’s reputation was built. Under his leadership, AERL continuously pushed boundaries, achieving numerous accolades and global recognition. The products he developed transformed the way the world harnessed solar energy, making it more efficient and commercially viable. His entrepreneurial mindset combined with his engineering prowess created a legacy that few could match.
But with his passing, AERL faced a void that seemed impossible to fill. The company lost not just its founder but its guiding light. The years immediately following Stuart’s death were challenging. Without his leadership and vision, the company grappled with its identity and direction.
While the impact of Stuart’s innovations lived on, the soul of the company was lost, and after a few years, the original AERL, which had been so intrinsically tied to Stuart’s persona, saw its story reach an end.
A New Beginning
In 2017, Stuart’s son, Peter Watkinson, (aged 19, and already a serial entrepreneur at this point) launched a new revitalized AERL, intent on seeing Stuart’s original vision to fruition.
Peter, imbued with his father’s spirit but armed with fresh perspectives and a contemporary approach, endeavoured to understand the changing dynamics of the renewable energy landscape. The world was shifting rapidly, with technological advances reshaping industries and consumer expectations evolving with every sunrise. There was a heightened global emphasis on sustainability, and renewable energy was no longer a niche market but a mainstream necessity.
Under Peter’s leadership, the new AERL adopted a forward-looking approach. Embracing modern technological innovations, as the company began investing heavily in research and development. It was no longer just about harnessing solar energy more efficiently; it quickly expanded to all aspects of renewable energy.
Collaborations with other tech startups, as well as leading universities, became a cornerstone of AERL‘s strategy. These partnerships aimed to blend the expertise of different sectors, fostering a multidisciplinary approach to problem-solving. Whether it was the development of new silicon carbide based converters or the foray into modular power architecture, AERL displayed a hunger for innovation that echoed its early days.
Yet, while the company’s direction was future-centric, its core values remained rooted in Stuart’s vision. Integrity, excellence, and a commitment to making renewable energy accessible to all underpinned every initiative. Many of those who had worked with Stuart, often remarked that while the company was on a new path, the essence of AERL remained authentic.
The relaunched AERL, though vastly different in its approach and outlook, maintained a link to its storied past. It was as if Stuart’s spirit was still the guiding light, his ethos serving as the foundation upon which AERL’s new chapter was being written.
While the original AERL’s journey had reached its sunset after Stuart’s passing, under Peter, the company experienced a new beginning, teeming with promise and endless possibilities.
Today, AERL stands as a beacon of innovation and resilience in the renewable energy sector. Building on its rich heritage and the groundbreaking work of its original founder, Stuart Watkinson, the relaunched company has successfully carved out a unique niche in an industry that’s more competitive than ever.
With Peter Watkinson’s leadership, AERL has blended the wisdom of the past with the innovation of the present. The company has expanded its global footprint, partnering with tech giants and green start-ups alike, and continues to redefine what’s possible in the world of renewable energy. Their recent ventures, ranging from distributed energy management to the search for new energy sources, showcase a company that isn’t just adapting to change but is leading it.
The legacy of Stuart, his indomitable spirit and visionary thinking, is palpable in every corridor of AERL. While the technological marvels and product lines have evolved, the core mission remains unaltered: to make sustainable energy accessible, and abundant.