UNSW's role in China's solar future was the focus of attention during a visit from the head of one of that country's fastest-growing cities - and the former photovoltaics student who is now one of China's richest men.

Mr Yang Weize, the secretary of the Wuxi Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China, was accompanied on a visit to the School of Photovoltaic and Renewable Energy Engineering last week by billionaire UNSW alumnus Dr Shi Zhengrong, the founder of solar cell manufacturing giant Suntech Power.

Dr Shi established Suntech, which commercialised UNSW solar cell technology, in Wuxi in 2001 with financial assistance from the Wuxi government.

Suntech is now one of the world's largest producers of solar cell modules and its founder was recently listed in Forbes magazine as China's second richest man.

During his visit, Mr Yang said he had come to know UNSW through Dr Shi's success story and he wished to further develop ties between the University and Wuxi.

"My visit to UNSW is to get a better knowledge so we can have a full range of co-operation between the university and our city. I would like to see people come to UNSW to study and even to work," he said.

Dr Shi said his decision to come to UNSW to complete a PhD in electrical engineering in 1992 was a "very important" factor in his business success.

"When I came to Australia I renewed my career. At that time, not many people saw that solar could be a big industry," he said.

"I didn't know whether it was going to be success or not, but as a person I like a challenge," he said of his decision to move back to China to establish Suntech.

The visit follows Dr Shi's nomination last month as one of Time magazine's Heroes of the Environment.

The Time special feature named Dr Shi among a select group of visionaries, activists and entrepreneurs from around the world who have played a lead role in addressing global sustainability.

Dr Shi's profile in Time was written by UNSW's Professor Martin Green, who supervised his research.