Perovskite solar panel. photo by Boshu Zhang, Wong Choon Lim Glenn & Mingzhen Liu

Is A Cheap Solar Cell on the Horizon?

2 minutes read

Mineral called perovskite may hold the clue

Currently solar panels which generate electricity – photovoltaics – are complex to manufacture, and expensive, compared to the amount of electricity they generate. This has not stopped them being an increasing part of renewable electricity generation worldwide, but it has meant that they have not been able to displace as much fossil-fuelled generation as would be adviseable for the planet to avoid serious warming.

The cost is a major factor, and many technologies have been tried to reduce this: printing solar cells onto plastic, for example. None have worked out on a large scale, but now there is the possibility of a cheap material, called Perovskite, which could revolutionise the manufacture and deployment of solar power. Recently, materials researchers in Oxford, led by Dr Henry Snaith, have shown that they can make simple perovskite solar cells with efficiencies of around 20% (that is 20% of the light falling on them is converted to electricity) – this is similar to the best conventional PV cells. It makes them technically competitive, whilst also promising to be cheaper and higher volume in manufacture.

Perovskite in its mineral form. Photo by USG
Perovskite in its mineral form. Photo by USGS.

This breakthrough, it has been suggested, could mean the end of silicon based solar cells in favour of those based on perovskite. There are two possible problems that might emerge. The first is that researchers are able to find a perovskite that doesn’t have lead or other toxic elements in it that can leach out during or after use. The second is that a way can be found to make perovskites as durable as silicon—recent tests have suggested that because they are water-soluble, they won’t last as long as silicon, which has proven to be stable for decades.

Perovskite solar panel. Photo Boshu Zhang, Wong Choon Lim Glenn & Mingzhen Liu

Perovskite solar panel. Photo Boshu Zhang, Wong Choon Lim Glenn & Mingzhen LiuAnother interesting property of perovskite is that it is strong – actual building materials could be made out of it, unlike the silicon cells, which have to be clad on the outside of the structural components of a building, because they are fragile and not able to bear loads.

Assuming that these problems can be solved, the future for perovskite looks interesting.

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