Obituary: Professor Robert Hill

THE WORLD of alternative energy has lost one of its leading exponents with the sudden death of Robert Hill. His expertise on solar energy and photovoltaic technologies was recognised world-wide.

Hill chaired the British Photovoltaics Association from 1994 to 1995 and was chairman for this millennium year, and was a member of the Solar Energy Advisory Committee and the Technology Foresight Energy Committee, providing policy advice to the Government. He led the 12th European Photovoltaic Conference in 1994 and was involved in subsequent conferences including the preparation for next year's conference in Glasgow.

Last year Hill was a founding member of the inter-disciplinary Sustainable Cities Research Institute at the University of Northumbria, and Director of Renew North (the board for the Renewable Energy Agency for the North East), reflecting his long-held views on the need for a holistic approach to sustainable development.

Hill was born and brought up outside Leeds. He took a first degree in Physics at Imperial College, London, and then stayed to pursue a doctorate in Solid State Physics. In the mid- 1960s, he joined the research staff at Sellafield, then Windscale, where he focused on nuclear safety before moving briefly to Newcastle University. He joined Newcastle Polytechnic, now the University of Northumbria at Newcastle (UNN), in 1971, as Lecturer in the Department of Physics and Physical Electronics.

In 1984 he became Professor of Opto-Electronics, and in the same year established, and became director of, the Newcastle Photovoltaics Applications Centre, a post which he continued to hold until his retirement in 1998. His personal academic output was large and influential, authoring and editing 12 books, including The Future of Energy (1994) and Prospects for Photovoltaics: commercialisation, mass production and application for development (1992), seven conference proceedings, some 200 papers in refereed journals and major conferences and over 100 commercial reports.

His early work at UNN focused on thin-film solar cells for terrestrial use, exploring high-efficiency coatings. By 1978, Hill was working on satellite solar panels. Knowing that it was difficult to generate money in new universities for fundamental research, he concentrated on developing hardware for testing solar cells. In parallel, he promoted clean energy not just in Britain and elsewhere in Europe but across the globe. Hill was the ideal advocate of change, tackling the technology issues as well as the economic, environmental and social costs of different energy systems.

In the late 1970s he taught on the innovative (and short-lived) Social and Physical Sciences degree at Newcastle Polytechnic and he traced his long-term interest in uniting these perspectives to this experience. Throughout the remainder of his career he sought to make complex technologies understandable to non-scientists, and to build an integrated and cross-disciplinary approach to sustainability. Although an internationally renowned scientist, Hill had a pragmatic, down-to-earth manner that could present complex technologies for the lay audience.

Bob Hill's work and life were an inspiration to those who met him. He was totally dedicated to the future of the environment and the need for an open-minded approach to science and scientific policy. He had a vast range of contacts who will all miss his presence, his wisdom and, not least, his sense of humour.

Robert Hill, physicist: born 24 June 1937; Senior Demonstrator, School of Physics, University of Newcastle upon Tyne 1968-71; Lect-urer, Department of Physics and Physical Electronics, Newcastle Polytechnic (later University of Northumbria at Newcastle) 1971- 74, Senior Lecturer 1974-80, Reader in Opto-Electronics 1980-84, Professor 1984-97, Director of Newcastle Photovoltaics Applications Centre 1984-98; twice married (one son, one daughter); died Newcastle upon Tyne 26 November 1999.